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Talks with Docs: Robert Judson-Torres, Melanoma Researcher

Dr. Robert Judson-Torres Interview Talks With Docs

Video transcript

If you’re going to make a great discovery, again, nine out of ten times you won’t, right? And that’s how you get to that great discovery.

My name is Robert Judson-Torres and I am a research faculty in the Department of Dermatology.

What is your favorite part of working at Huntsman Cancer Institute?

What I found here was, especially for what I do, which is /skin-cancer/melanoma research—it’s an incredibly integrated community. So any human disease—melanoma being one of them—is so extraordinarily complicated that in order to really have the best care for patients, as well as sort of pushing the envelope on research, you need experts in all of it, right? From prevention to diagnosis to the treatment of that patient—figuring out what the best options are—to the researchers like myself, who are trying to make things better.

What is your cancer research focus?

My lab really focuses on all things revolving around a cell type called a melanocyte. So melanocytes are famous for a few things—they’re famous for giving us our different skin tones, they’re famous for giving us a tan, they’re also infamous for being the cell of origin for melanoma. We don’t really know a whole lot about human melanocytes or these very early stages of melanoma development. And so some of the fundamental questions we’re asking are how melanocytes are different across the human body, how these different types of melanocytes can be cells of origin for different types of skin cancers and different types of melanoma. We hope that through understanding cell of origin, why you get a mole, why you get a melanoma, that this will actually lead to new strategies for prevention, for early intervention, and then potentially also therapeutic intervention.

Why did you become a cancer researcher?

I always knew that I wanted to explore and discover— that’s really the driving force here. I grew up on a family-owned farm in very rural Pennsylvania. We didn’t have TV, I didn’t have an Atari—there weren’t many people around, right? And so when the chores were done there was really only one thing to do and that was to explore. When I realized that I could just close my eyes and randomly point to any biology—whether it is a bug, a leaf, a twig, any part of our anatomy—and I’d be pointing at something that you could spend another hundred lifetimes studying and not really fully understand. That’s when I knew that that that was my frontier, so to speak.

What do you do when you’re not in the lab?

If I have any free time during the day that suddenly randomly pops up, meetings cancelled, I just change into running clothes and take off in those mountains, right, so that’s something I love to do. Outside of that right now I mean it is almost exclusively my family. I have a two-year-old daughter, another child on the way in about two months, German shepherd, a wife— all of who I just adore and any free time I get I spend with them.

What fictional character do you relate to?

Throughout life would be someone like Indiana Jones. He is someone who really, I mean as corny as it is, he inspired me to want to be a teacher and want to be an explorer, just flat out. I think the approach of being willing to ask questions that others might not have thought of, to follow essentially the data wherever it goes, even if it doesn’t make sense at first, and when push comes to shove just roll up your sleeves and get through something through total grit is a rough approach I have. I use very different tools, right—not a lot of whips, guns, or fists in my labs—but the approach is similar. And so I would say that at a time in my life when sort of my brain was forming what I was interested in, those movies certainly played a fundamental role.

What’s it like to train the next generation of cancer researchers?

I do see young scientists get frustrated. You put a lot of work, love, and energy into a project and turns out there the null hypothesis was true, but that’s part of it—that is the game, right? You should say, wow I took this knowledge that we have, I came up with the possibility that makes the most sense to me, and I was wrong—that makes it more interesting, right? That means that nature is doing things in a way that you literally can’t conceive right now and so then you need to design the next set of experiments to try to get a bead on, well, what really is happening. But for me the real reason I’m here as opposed to another sector of science of research is its academia. It is the training, right? So to me the most meaningful part of the job is the students. I just very strongly believe that getting that very high level of training in the scientific process for anyone in the game, no matter what they’re going to do, is why I’m here.

Cancer touches all of us.