First-generation college student first from USF Health to win top Graduate Student Research Symposium health sciences award

Emily Palumbo has added yet another achievement to her already illustrious academic resume, becoming the first USF Health student to place first in the health sciences category of the Statewide Graduate Student Research Symposium.

“I hope others will look at this and see that if you prepare and do your best, you can get to where you want to be,” said Palumbo. “You can achieve what you want to achieve if you put in the effort.”

Students representing a total of 11 institutions competed in this year’s Statewide Graduate Research Symposium, which took place at USF in late April.

Palumbo, the daughter of a print shop owner and bookkeeper, is a first-generation college student. Growing up, Palumbo’s parents expounded the importance of higher education, encouraging her to pursue whatever excited her — so long as she earned a degree in it.

Emily Palumbo is a graduate student in the Department of Cell Biology and Pathology.

Palumbo has certainly made her parents proud. She began at USF at age 17, earning her bachelor’s degree in biology just a few years later. Now at 22, she’s studying for her doctorate in medical science.

Always scientifically inclined — she remembers her first experiment in the third grade, which involved shucking oysters to find pearls — Palumbo originally set out to become a medical doctor.

“But I really like science at its core, so I decided to go into research,” she said.

A little over a year ago, she joined the lab of Vrushank Davé, PhD, an associate professor in the Department of Pathology and Cell Biology at USF’s Morsani College of Medicine. There, with Dr. Davé’s oversight, Palumbo began her research into the use of peptidomimetics to inhibit the growth of cancer.

She presented her work with peptidomimetics at the Symposium, with a poster titled “PTEN Activation as a Novel Approach for Lung Cancer Therapy.”

Peptidomimetics, she explained, are molecular compounds that mimic naturally occurring peptides in the body. When applied to lung cancer cells, Palumbo said, peptidomimetics have been shown to activate a tumor-suppressing protein, keeping cancer cells contained.

“Every cancer wants to proliferate, grow, and metastasize to other parts of the body. To do this, the cancer hijacks cells, targeting tumor-suppressing proteins, modifying them to reduce their expression or activity in the body,” Palumbo said.

“I have applied the peptidomimetics to plates of lung cancer cells, which then uptake the drug. All the data I’ve collected is very promising.”

Palumbo chose to experiment with lung cancer in part because it is the leading cause of cancer deaths. According to the American Cancer Society, each year, more people die from lung cancer than from colon, breast and prostate cancers combined.

She hopes to soon begin testing peptidomimetics in mice and eventually move into a clinical trial phase.

Dr. Davé lauded Palumbo’s achievement at the Statewide Graduate Student Research Symposium, and said he’s certain she will proudly represent USF for many years to come.

“Emily impressed me with the vision and enthusiasm she brought into my lab. Her understanding of the existing knowledge gap and hurdles in treating cancer was palpable right from day one of joining my lab.

“She is self-driven, and is not afraid of taking on innovative and often risky paths to developing experimental approaches that can lead to better treatment of cancer.

“Her goal is to become a cancer scientist of the highest caliber, obtain post-doctoral training at the country’s best cancer institutes, and establish her own lab soon after. I have full confidence that Emily will achieve her dream of finding safer and better cancer treatments,” he said.

-Story by Rachel Pleasant, USF Communications and Marketing, and photos by Freddie Coleman, USF Health Communications and Marketing