Oct 23, 2020 12:00 PM

photo of Katie Basham, PhD
Katie Basham, PhD

Katie Basham, PhD
Cancer Researcher at Huntsman Cancer Institute
Assistant Professor of Oncological Sciences at the University of Utah

My 5 is for my mom. She’s the person who really inspired my career path. And she’s the person who, growing up, always taught me that I could go on and do anything that I wanted, which I think is a really powerful message to hear as a kid. And science is definitely a difficult career path, so for me that’s been kind of the light that helps push through all the challenges, knowing that, one, I can do it because she always told me that I could and, two, that it will help people like her.”
—Katie Basham

As a freshman in high school, Katie Basham received some news that would change her life—her mother was diagnosed with multiple myeloma.

“That was a scary time because I was 15 and I didn’t know what cancer was,” Basham says. “I started to learn through her experience and that inspired me to want to help cancer patients everywhere.”

Basham headed down the only path she knew to make a difference for cancer patients, which was becoming a doctor. But Basham soon became intrigued by another path that would allow her to pursue her passion to focus on developing better treatments for cancer. She transitioned her training to pursue laboratory science, where she would have the opportunity to explore why some treatments don’t work and why some treatments produce benefits but have difficult side effects.

“I just found that cycle really frustrating. And the problem is that there just isn’t enough known to create better therapies,” Basham says.

Unfortunately, she lost her mom to cancer during her last year of college.

“I relate very strongly to patients and their families, and I really enjoy this [research] path because there’s so much intellectual freedom and so much ability to work on questions that you’re passionate about,” says Basham.

Basham took a leap of faith and started her work in cancer research at Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI) and the University of Utah. For five years, she worked in the lab of Bryan Welm, PhD, studying breast cancer research. She then headed to the University of Michigan, where she stayed for six years.

The 5 For The Fight Fellowship, a grant for three years, is a “welcome home” present of sorts. She receives the fellowship as she returns to HCI to set up her own laboratory studying adrenal cancers. Currently there is a single, often toxic, therapy for the disease.

“Most patients have a really difficult time tolerating the drug,” Basham says. “My research is really aimed at trying to understand adrenal cancer and the different genes and pathways that are altered, and then trying to create new therapies that are more targeted—ones that are going to kill the cancer cells but not harm normal cells.”

When she got word she received the 5 For The Fight fellowship, she was thrilled to know that she had both the financial and moral support of the community in Utah.

“It really is huge for starting out in my career, starting my laboratory, which is a big step in my professional career. I’m really ecstatic to come back to Huntsman Cancer Institute.”

Advice for Young Scientists

“I always encourage people to just ask for what you’re looking for and go try it out. If you don’t see the opportunity, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Oftentimes if you just email people and express your interest and tell them why, that opportunity becomes available to you. And I think that’s been absolutely true at every step of my career.”

What She Would Tell Patients

“We as scientists do feel the sense of urgency, and we always want things to move faster. But I think there is a really powerful perspective to have to look back at different periods of time and see how much progress we really have made. It is making a difference. Even if on any given day you don’t make a huge breakthrough, it happens over time. The cumulative effect of research is what really makes the difference.”

adrenal cancer cancer research trainees

Cancer touches all of us.

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