Pathology's Best Kept Secret: MCP Graduate Program

By Lynn McCain | September 15 2022

One of the best kept secrets in the Department of Pathology at the University of Michigan is our exceptional graduate program in Molecular and Cellular Pathology (MCP). A program affiliated with the Medical School’s Program in Biomedical Sciences (PIBS), the MCP graduate program prepares young scientists for careers in both academics and industry. The MCP program is supported by approximately 40 Pathology-based research laboratories encompassing a wide range of topics in the areas of Aging, Allergy, Cancer Biology, Development & DNA Repair, Inflammation and Immunology, Mucosal Inflammation and Epithelial Pathobiology, Neurobiology/Pathology, and Bioinformatics. Research strengths are further complemented by innovative clinical and translational research programs in Anatomic and Clinical Pathology.

McAnulty, Jessica 500 x 500.pngOne of our MCP students, Jessica McAnulty, recently sat down with our communications team to discuss her experience and how she ended up at Michigan enrolled in our program. Jessica grew up in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, just north of Philadelphia. She completed her undergraduate work at the University of Delaware. “I got involved in research at the very beginning of my sophomore year,” explained McAnulty. “As I worked in the lab, I came to understand the process of grad school and I learned you actually get paid to go to graduate school!” Up to this point, she didn’t think she would be able to pursue a graduate degree and had been planning on seeking employment after graduation. “That bit of information was very influential on my career path,” she added. “As an undergrad, I completed an internship at Merck in West Point, Pennsylvania. That opened my eyes to translational research, and I decided that I wanted to become a scientist. I wanted to help people in some way.” The following year, she returned to Merck for a 2nd internship and began investigating graduate programs.

McAnulty was looking at universities that offered umbrella programs, such as PIBS at Michigan. Michigan is also a renowned institution with exceptional research programs and a medical school. These qualities checked off every box for her. “But then, once I did my interview here, I was pleasantly surprised at how supportive PIBS was overall to the graduate students.” At the time, Michigan was a consideration, but when she visited her top choice school, no transportation was provided and no one helped to guide her to interviews scattered through campus, etc. “I was shocked. It really made me reflect and realize that there was just so much support at Michigan that I had taken for granted until I visited other universities. If that is how those universities treat their prospective students, how will they treat their actual students?” That is when she made the decision – Michigan was the place for her! She hasn’t been sorry – the support she experienced during her interview was just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the support she has received since joining the program.

A unique aspect of the MCP program is that its department houses the Training Program in Translational Research T32. Each student awarded the grant chooses a clinical advisor. “You get to go to the clinic and experience conversations with patients, observe surgeries, and better understand what these patients are going through. That firsthand experience was super impactful for me. The Training Program in Translational Research was a big draw for me to join the Pathology program in particular,” McAnulty reflected.

McAnulty joined the laboratory of Dr. Analisa DiFeo, Associate Professor of Pathology, whose area of research is identifying the genetic alterations that lead to gynecological cancers, specifically high grade serous cancer (HGSC), the most common subtype of ovarian cancer, in order to develop novel biomarkers and therapies. Within the lab, McAnulty’s specific area of research is studying the mechanisms of a novel compound that was identified in the lab that could kill ovarian cancer cells. This particular drug is not likely to get to humans, but it can provide a clearer understanding of the exact mechanisms that are important to kill ovarian cancer cells. This knowledge will allow scientists in the future to potentially develop a therapeutic to better target ovarian cancers. An exciting moment for McAnulty in the lab was when she was able to capture cells specifically within mitosis. “I’ve learned about mitosis and cell division in school; it is a very abstract topic. But then to be able to actually see it myself in an experiment that I ran, and the mitotic abnormalities that my drug induced – that was very exciting!”

One of the reasons for choosing Michigan was its affiliation with the Medical School and hospitals. This affiliation allows researchers to have access to consented patients’ tissues. “We are very lucky to have Michigan Medicine patient-derived ovarian cancer models as well as patient-derived non-transformed cells. They are non-cancerous cells that had some molecular changes to allow them to grow on a dish. We are able to keep them growing and use them as a “normal” comparison. That has had a big influence on the project as I am able to show that the drug I’m studying is capable of killing ovarian cancer cells recently taken from a patient, but the normal, non-transformed cells are not affected,” explained McAnulty.

The variety of research by others in the MCP program is also a benefit she enjoys, “Everyone is doing translational research, but in many different systems. It is not specific to cancer or a rare disease or a particular organ. I really like the diversity.” She also enjoys the people. “When I interviewed here, it was so nice and just refreshing to see all the graduate students get along, just an overall friendliness. Then, once I arrived here, that didn’t change. I’m approaching my fifth year in the program and there is constantly a cycle of new students, but everyone is still very supportive, and I really appreciate that.”

“I also love Ann Arbor! It is really fun. I love the feel – it is more relaxed, and there are all the different restaurants and the outdoor activities, especially here on the river. It is a great place to live.” McAnulty suggests that potential students consider the living environment as well as the school they will be attending when deciding where to go for their graduate studies. “You need to figure out what is important to you. If you are going into translational research, having that hospital connection is amazing, because now you potentially have access to consented patient samples. It needs to be in an area that you would like to live, ideally in a rich research environment, with faculty you would like to work with,” she advised.

Looking to the future, she hopes to complete her PhD next year, then find a postdoctoral position in either academics or industry. Either way, she wants to be engaged in translational research to make an impact on patients’ lives. If you want to learn more about the MCP program, please contact Dr. Zaneta Nikolovska-Coleska, Director of the MCP Graduate Program.