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Pelotonia Fellows pursue next-gen discoveries

Students gain critical experience while contributing valuable research during Pelotonia Fellowships.
Next-gen discoveries

When Resham Mawalkar arrived at Ohio State as an undergraduate student, she was eager to find opportunities to participate in research, particularly cancer research.

She found those opportunities and then some as a biomedical sciences major, especially when she was awarded a Pelotonia Fellowship to study breast cancer this past year.

The Pelotonia Fellowship Program supports Ohio State students from any discipline and academic level who want to participate in groundbreaking cancer research with faculty mentors at the  Ohio State Comprehensive Cancer Center – James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute (OSUCCC – James)

“I'm very grateful that during my time at Ohio State I was able to actively apply what I was learning by spending time in the lab,” says Mawalkar, who graduated this past May. “My entire experience with cancer research here has been incredible. I had wonderful mentors and got the opportunity to really be hands-on with my work and projects. Ohio State offered so many resources that support students like myself in this endeavor.”

Mawalkar was one of many Pelotonia Fellows who spent the past year diving deep into innovative cancer research at Ohio State. Since its inception in 2010, the program has awarded 606 student fellowships, including 278 undergraduates, 184 graduates, 138 postdoctoral fellows and six medical students. 

“Being a part of Pelotonia was one of the highlights of my undergraduate career; it has a fantastic mission,” Mawalkar says. “I loved being a part of an organization that does so much to support cancer research. Being chosen as one of the fellows was an honor I was so grateful for.”

What follows is more information on Mawalkar’s research along with other 2020 Pelotonia Fellows’ work:

Pelotonia Undergraduate Fellows

Resham Mawalkar

Major: Biomedical Sciences

Undergraduate research: Along with the Pelotonia Fellowship, Mawalkar also participated in the Undergraduate Research Festival and the Denman Undergraduate Research Forum.

Mentors: Bhuvaneswari Ramaswamy and Sarmila Majumder 

Resham’s story: As a long-time volunteer on the oncology floor of Columbus’ Nationwide Children’s Hospital, Mawalkar saw firsthand what a cancer diagnosis means to people and families. In her personal life, she’s also seen the impact of breast cancer on family and friends. So when research opportunities presented themselves at Ohio State, she grabbed them, focusing on the link between breastfeeding and breast cancer.

Quotable: “We are studying how breastfeeding can have a protective effect in guarding against breast cancer risk. And for women unable to breastfeed, how can we guard against developing breast cancer? Research behind risk factors for cancer are so important for the identification of strategies for prevention. This year, being able to home in and spend more time in the lab has been a motivating factor to dive deeper into my project. The impact Pelotonia research can have on patient lives in the future is tremendous. It’s an honor to be a part of it.”

Gabriella Lapurga

Major: Psychology (Pharmaceutical Sciences minor)

Undergraduate research: Lapurga also participated in the Denman Undergraduate Research Forum.

Mentor: William Carson

Gabriella’s story: “My dad is a physician, and seeing the way he impacted our community, hearing family and friends tell me how much he helped them during surgery and how he comforted them inspired me to pursue medicine. At Ohio State, I’ve shadowed a lot of physicians and learned so much from each of them. It’s made me a lot more excited to become a doctor in the future.”

Her Pelotonia Fellowship:  Her research involves a key part of the body’s immune system called myeloid-derived suppressor cells. Discoveries that she’s made could lead to the development of new cancer treatments.

“It’s really meant a lot knowing that the contributions I’ve made with this project are helping in the fight against cancer. It’s rewarding to have the opportunity to work in such a great lab with great researchers and to grow as a researcher, scientist and future health professional. It’s really meant the world.”

Rahi Patel

Major: Molecular Genetics (Clinical Psychology minor)

Mentor: Wayne Miles

Rahi’s research: His work is contributing to the new wave of gene therapies, which he believes is the path to personalized medicine. His research involves exploring how a particular protein may contribute to cancer development; if that protein can be eliminated from cell lines, it could be a new way to treat certain cancers.

Quotable: “I truly believe my research will have lasting impacts on patients and their outcomes when it comes to cancers. We’re in the 21st century, and the ways of targeting specific proteins and cancers have been completely revolutionized. What this means on a patient level is a lot of medicine now is moving to a personalized, specific-to-the-patient type of care. We can quickly and efficiently and cheaply look at certain individual patient samples and take this information to find therapies that would directly benefit them, so these side effects and things you see from other types of therapies won’t apply as much because it’s not as generalized.”

2020 Pelotonia Graduate Fellows

Peter Beshay

Major: Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, PhD studies

Mentor: Jonathan Song

Peter’s story: He uses his mechanical engineering background to better understand how cancer cells spread throughout our bodies. His hope is that his discoveries will be the first step toward eliminating these forces and controlling the spread of cancer. While the study focuses on breast cancer, it can be applied to pancreatic cancer and any type of cancer that metastasizes. As the grandson of one grandmother who died from cancer and another grandmother currently battling cancer, he is passionate about this work.

Quotable: “I can’t be in the lab without thinking about my grandmother and the millions of others suffering from this disease. Even though I’m not developing drugs or anything like that, each contribution to understanding this disease certainly helps. 

“As engineers, we have a lot to contribute to cancer research, and I feel very lucky I can work on such a challenging topic. In my research, we are aiming to use nanosensors to study how biophysical forces contribute to cancer spread. If successful, our findings could help in drug screening or in developing new treatments for cancer patients.”

Monica Mannings

Major: Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology

Mentor: Sharon Amacher

Critical basic research: As a research scientist, Mannings is doing what she loves every day. Her research is diving deep into how genes function within cells to cause cancer. Building this biological knowledge foundation will allow us to explore more complex questions, leading to better treatments or drugs to treat cancers.

Quotable: “We know from several cancer biology studies that genes can be hijacked by cancer cells and used to the cancer cells’ advantage. I’m interested in how genes are regulated in a normal context and how some of those hijacking mechanisms used by cancer cells can cause cancer.

“Being awarded the (Pelotonia Fellowship) grant made me feel validated as a scientist but also instilled confidence in me that the research I’m doing is important and can be impactful for the greater public. That’s what inspires me every day to go into the lab and continue to do what I love to do. That’s my motivation.”

Anqi Li

Major: Cancer Immunotherapy

Mentor: Zihai Li

The next frontier: Anqi Li is a doctorate student researching cancer immunotherapy through the Pelotonia Institute for Immuno-Oncology. Immunotherapy is considered the next frontier in cancer treatment. It harnesses the body’s own immune system to fight cancer. But while certain cancers — melanoma, lung and breast cancers — have been shown to be responsive to treatment, nearly 80% of people don’t respond to the treatment. Li’s research is helping to find out why.

Quotable: “For immunotherapy, one thing that is much better than chemotherapy is that the immune cells won’t eradicate the normal cells. They only recognize the foreign cells that don’t belong to your body. Then they’ll kill the foreign cells. We are trying to deal with cancer types or cancer patients resistant to immunotherapy, so it’s not just to help the patient eradicate cancer; we’re trying to facilitate immunotherapy in general.”

Abby Zalenski

Major: Neuroscience

Mentors: Monica Venere and Nicholas Denko

Abby’s story: A two-time Ohio State graduate already (’17, MS ’19), Abby is a PhD student and graduate fellow in the field of neuro-oncology. Her Pelotonia Fellowship research is focused on glioblastoma, a rare and devastating form of brain cancer. She hopes her work can help lead to better treatments for glioblastoma patients.

Cancer has hit her family. Not only did her maternal grandfather die of cancer, but her other grandfather began fighting leukemia when Abby was young.

Quotable: “When my grandfather’s cancer was bad, he enrolled in a clinical trial at The James that saved his life. That trial was Pelotonia-funded, and that trial and that drug are hanging up in the research building I work in now. There’s something about working on cancer research that every single person you talk to can relate to what you’re doing. That really says something, and it says it’s a worthy cause to work on. I’m so grateful I’m able to do these studies, because I do think they can make a difference. I’m glad there’s an organization that shares my passion and drive for helping cancer patients.”

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