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Six New Cancer Research Fellows Announced by 5 For The Fight


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5 For The Fight Logo

Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI) at the University of Utah (U of U), in partnership with 5 For The Fight, is proud to announce the 2021 Cancer Research Fellowship recipients. Thanks to a $1 million gift from 5 For The Fight, six cancer researchers will receive support to help them advance their cancer research programs.

5 For The Fight is a nonprofit, started by Qualtrics, that invites everyone to give $5 for the fight against cancer. 5 For The Fight partners with centers across the world to fund some of the most groundbreaking cancer research being done today.

"This funding represents thousands of individuals fighting back at cancer in honor or memory of their loved ones," says Lori Kun, Head of Social Impact at Qualtrics. "Adding these talented individuals to the nine existing fellows at Huntsman Cancer Institute announced last year, 5 For The Fight is honored to increase our fellowship to 15 incredibly talented researchers. We are overwhelmed by the quality of applicants and grateful to support these individuals in their most promising work."

The six fellows were chosen through a highly competitive process to find promising researchers who are early in their careers. These individuals are involved in innovative research and poised to make major impacts in understanding and treating cancer. Funding for the fellowship program comes at a time when securing cancer laboratory grants is more challenging than ever. Fellowships of this nature are rare, particularly for cancer researchers early in their careers.

"We are extremely excited to announce another talented and diverse group of cancer research fellows," says Brad Cairns, PhD, Chief Academic Officer of HCI. "5 For The Fight, Qualtrics, and HCI are dedicated to making a positive difference in the lives of cancer patients. These fellows share that same vision."

5 For The Fight Cancer Research Fellowship Recipients

Photo of Matthew Covington, MD

Matthew Covington, MD, is fighting for earlier, more accurate detection of breast cancer. As an assistant professor of radiology and imaging sciences at the U of U and the Center for Quantitative Cancer Imaging at HCI, he specializes in innovating breast imaging to find ways to more accurately detect and diagnose breast cancer. He received his medical degree from the U of U, and completed his medical training at the Scripps Institute in San Diego, the University of Arizona, and the Mayo Clinic in Arizona. He previously worked as an assistant professor of radiology at Washington University in St. Louis.

Photo of Keren Hilgendorf, PhD

Keren Hilgendorf, PhD, is fighting cancer by working to understand why obesity accelerates cancer growth. She is an assistant professor of biochemistry at U of U and a member of HCI where she oversees a cancer research laboratory. She received her PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, followed by postdoctoral training at Stanford University School of Medicine as a Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow.

Photo of Mary Playdon, PhD, MPH

Mary Playdon, PhD, MPH, is fighting cancer by understanding the role of diet and nutrition on cancer risk, health, and longevity after a cancer diagnosis. She aims to improve survival rates of cancer patients through research focused on diet. A nutritional and cancer epidemiologist, she completed a postdoctoral fellowship in metabolic epidemiology with the National Cancer Institute’s Division of Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics. She is a cancer epidemiologist at HCI and an assistant professor of nutrition and integrative physiology at the U of U.

Photo of Alejandro Sanchez, MD

Alejandro Sanchez, MD, is fighting for better survival outcomes by understanding the connection between renal cancer and obesity. He is an assistant professor of urology at the U of U and a surgical oncologist at HCI. He received a Young Investigator Award from the American Society of Clinical Oncology and the Chairman’s Award for Excellence in Basic Science during his urologic oncology fellowship training at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.

Photo of Gita Suneja, MD, MS

Gita Suneja, MD, MS, is fighting to improve access to cancer treatment for marginalized populations. A radiation oncologist at HCI and associate professor of radiation oncology at the U of U, her clinical specialties include the treatment of breast and gynecologic cancers. Her research focuses on enhancing health equity to improve cancer outcomes for all people. She completed her medical degree at Brown University and served as chief resident during her radiation oncology residency training at the University of Pennsylvania.

Photo of Christos Vaklavas, MD

Christos Vaklavas, MD, is fighting breast cancer by translating new research insights into clinical trials for breast cancer. He is an associate professor of internal medicine at the U of U and cares for breast cancer patients at HCI. He is a breast cancer physician leader and oversees the clinical research in breast cancer at HCI. His research has been supported by a Young Investigator Award from the American Society of Clinical Oncology and a Career Catalyst Award from Susan G. Komen.


About 5 For The Fight:

5 For The Fight, a Qualtrics-led nonprofit, is a global campaign inviting everyone to donate $5 to the fight against cancer. Each donation is made in honor of someone who is battling or has been touched by the disease. To date, 5 For The Fight has raised more than $27.4 million to help eradicate cancer with 100% of those funds donated directly to the world’s leading cancer researchers. 5 For The Fight is featured on the Utah Jazz jersey patch and is the only cause-related jersey patch in the NBA. To join the fight, please visit

About Qualtrics

Qualtrics, the leader in customer experience and creator of the Experience Management (XM) category, is changing the way organizations manage and improve the four core experiences of business: customer, employee, product, and brand. More than 11,000 organizations around the world are using Qualtrics to listen, understand, and take action on experience data (X-data™)––the beliefs, emotions, and intentions that tell you why things are happening, and what to do about it. The Qualtrics XM Platform™ is a system of action that helps businesses attract customers who stay longer and buy more, engage employees who build a positive culture, develop breakthrough products people love, and build a brand people are passionate about. To learn more,

Media Contact

Heather Simonsen
Public Relations
Huntsman Cancer Institute
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About Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah

Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah (the U) is the National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center for Utah, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, and Wyoming. With a legacy of innovative cancer research, groundbreaking discoveries, and world-class patient care, we are transforming the way cancer is understood, prevented, diagnosed, treated, and survived. Huntsman Cancer Institute focuses on delivering a cancer-free frontier to all communities in the area we serve. We have more than 300 open clinical trials and 250 research teams studying cancer at any given time. More genes for inherited cancers have been discovered at Huntsman Cancer Institute than at any other cancer center. Our scientists are world-renowned for understanding how cancer begins and using that knowledge to develop innovative approaches to treat each patient’s unique disease. Huntsman Cancer Institute was founded by Jon M. and Karen Huntsman.

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