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Trainee Member Spotlight

Kafayat Yusuf, MS, studies the link between inflammatory bowel disease and colorectal cancer
Kafayat Yusuf, MS

June 14, 2024

Meet Kafayat Aderonke Yusuf, MS, a graduate student and PhD candidate in the department of Cancer Biology at the University of Kansas Medical Center. Kafayat’s journey into cancer research is fueled by a profound commitment to addressing the global burden of cancer. It’s also what motivated her to become one of the first members of The University of Kansas Cancer Center’s Trainee Membership initiative. The initiative is designed to enhance access to training and educational resources for students aspiring to become leaders in cancer research and health care professions.

Here, Kafayat shares her dedication to unraveling the molecular intricacies of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and its progression to colorectal cancer—a critical area of study given the heightened cancer risks associated with IBD. One study found a 7% colorectal cancer risk after 30 years of disease. Kafayat’s exploration of digestive system cancers, driven by both personal interest and a desire to impact public health, underscores her mission to find new ways to prevent and treat IBD. 

What inspired you to pursue a career in cancer research? 
I am pursuing a career in cancer research because I am deeply aware of the staggering statistics surrounding cancer diagnosis and mortality rates. Despite significant advances in treatment, cancer remains a leading cause of death worldwide. This reality motivates me to contribute to the scientific community's understanding of cancer biology, alongside developing innovative therapies that could revolutionize cancer treatment. 

What is your research focus?
I am interested in understanding the molecular mechanisms that govern the progression of IBD to colorectal cancer. Patients with IBD have an increased risk of developing colon cancer even decades after diagnosis. With my research, I hope to understand key molecular markers that can be targeted to help minimize inflammation and the progression of IBD to colorectal cancer. 

How did you decide on this area of research? What do you find most exciting about it? 
I have always been inclined to study digestive system cancers due to a combination of personal interest and the significant impact these cancers have on public health. I am particularly interested in the interplay of IBD and colorectal cancer. This specific area of research captivates me due to the significant impact colorectal cancer has, being the fourth most diagnosed cancer in the U.S. and the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths. Understanding the multifaceted aspects of IBD and its progression to colorectal cancer provides insights into its biology and the potential to develop targeted preventive and therapeutic strategies. The prospect of contributing to breakthroughs that can improve early detection and treatment outcomes for patients is what I find most exciting about this research. 

Which aspects of the trainee membership benefits are valuable to you in advancing your career in cancer research? 
As a graduate student, the trainee membership benefits that are most valuable to me include access to grant writing support, training opportunities and mentorship. The cancer center organizes a weekly seminar series that enable graduate students like me to learn new techniques from different fields; this also facilitates connections with faculty members from various institutions, providing opportunities for mentorship and collaboration. Additionally, the annual KU Cancer Center Research Symposium is an invaluable platform for students and faculty to present their research and receive constructive feedback from diverse researchers. These experiences and resources are crucial in advancing my career by  enhancing my skills, expanding my professional network and providing opportunities for professional development. 

Have you collaborated with experienced KU Cancer Center researchers within the program? 
I am conducting research in the lab of Dr. Shahid Umar, PhD, AGAF, a Professor of Surgery and the Vice Chair of Research for the Department of Surgery. He is also a member of the cancer center’s Drug Discovery, Delivery and Experimental Therapeutics program member. This alliance enables our lab to collaborate with researchers, clinicians and surgeons. These collaborations are invaluable, providing access to novel techniques, patient samples and useful interactions that enhance our research and ultimately benefit patients. 

What are your long-term career goals in the field of cancer research? 
My long-term goal is to become an independent investigator at an institution where I can contribute to teaching and research. I aim to continue exploring the biology of cancer, which is driven by a passion for advancing our understanding and developing effective therapies. Additionally, I am very inclined towards medical writing, which allows me to communicate complex scientific findings to a broader audience and contribute to sharing knowledge in the field. 

Are there any milestones or achievements you hope to reach in the coming years? 
The milestones I want to achieve in my career reflect my commitment to advancing scientific knowledge and contributing to academia and the medical community. Firstly, I aim to become an independent research investigator at a reputable institution. This position will enable me to lead my research projects, focusing on exploring and developing new cancer treatments. One significant milestone will be securing grant funding to support my research endeavors. Access to these resources is crucial for conducting high-impact studies and driving innovation in cancer treatment strategies. 

Additionally, I aspire to contribute to the academic community through teaching. This involves imparting knowledge to students and mentoring the next generation of scientists. Guiding students through their research projects and fostering their development as independent researchers is a key component of my long-term goals. 

What advice would you give to someone considering a career in cancer research? 
Anyone considering a career in cancer research must build a solid scientific background through working in research laboratories, pursuing further degrees and gaining early research experience. Developing technical skills and seeking mentoring are also crucial steps. Cultivating passion, resilience and perseverance is vital, as research can be challenging. Finally, remembering the goal of assisting patients can provide motivation and fulfillment to do more.


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