Nov 08, 2021 9:00 AM

Read time: 4 minutes

Trudy G. Oliver, PhD
Trudy G. Oliver, PhD

Editor's note: Trudy Oliver, PhD, moved to Duke University in July of 2022.

Video transcript

You run into a patient in the hallway and you're just immediately reminded that, these people really depend on us and so we have to keep doing what we're doing.

I'm Trudy Oliver and I'm an associate professor at Huntsman Cancer Institute and an Endowed Chair in cancer research.

When did you know you wanted to become a cancer researcher?

In college, I had two family members diagnosed with cancer pretty close together—one on each side of the family. I just started to feel like cancer is really affecting a lot of people. My roommate in college, her father also had cancer, and so I just felt like, "Wow this is something really affecting a lot of people and I want to be an expert in this—I want to understand it." I was in college to go to medical school, but then I realized that you could also approach cancer from a research perspective.

What are some challenges your team faces researching lung cancer?

There really is a stigma associated with lung cancer right now, so it's not a very well-funded cancer type. Part of that is because everyone thinks of lung cancer as being associated with smoking, and that it might be people's fault, and so we shouldn't invest in it. I think that's completely wrong on many levels. You know, first of all a large percentage of people that don't smoke get lung cancer. Second of all, people who don't smoke, they get treated for their lung cancer. Their cancers often convert to other types of lung cancer that are associated with smoking. Things that we learn about lung cancer are often really translatable to many other cancer types, including children's cancers. So it's really important that we study it, but funding for it is a challenge.

What sets your research experience apart at Huntsman Cancer Institute?

The fact that we physically work in a cancer center that is taking care of patients—we see the patients in the hallway— I've had some pretty profound experiences walking down the hall and running into cancer patients that have really impacted me. I think it reminds us why we do what we do. You know, sometimes it's late hours and many days in a row with no break, and you can really get into the weeds of what you're doing, and sometimes forget why it's so important. Then you run into a patient in the hallway and you're just immediately reminded that you know these people really depend on us. So, we have to keep doing what we're doing.

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in southwest Oklahoma on a farm and we had tons of farm animals. My dad did everything from welding to cattle. It was a challenging, I think, hard place to grow up. But, I learned a lot about hard work, and persistence, and getting up early. But I think about it now, you know, as an adult and living on a farm. I had all this space to roam, and I got to interact with animals, and sort of just the beauty of nature. I think that sort of instilled in me an appreciation for life and all its diversity.

What are you up to when you are not in the lab?

I have a nice garden in my backyard and I love to do that so when the summer comes around. I get really excited about, you know, redoing the garden and planting lots of things I like to eat— namely tomatoes. So, that kind of makes me feel like I'm kind of working in the dirt. But, I really like mountain biking, and hiking, and just taking advantage of getting out into our mountains, and especially going to the desert in southern Utah, and just exploring.

What does the future of your research look like?

Small cell lung cancer has historically been treated as this single disease and with really poor outcomes. But, we know that when we find specific subsets of patients that have tumors that will benefit to a given therapy, if we can just design our clinical trials that way to test that concept, I believe we'll see a difference. So, we're in the process of working with medical oncologists here to design trials that our pre-clinical studies say will improve outcomes, if we can make those trials happen. So, the thing I think that I'm most excited about is hopefully seeing that come to fruition and seeing it make a difference for patients.

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Cancer touches all of us.

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