S.6 E.5: “A Passion for Asking Questions”

Learning for Life @ Gustavus host Greg Kaster interviews Gustavus alumna and Harvard cancer researcher Katie Aney '18.
Posted on December 21st, 2020 by

Recent graduate Katie Aney ’18 on her path to Gustavus and from there to Harvard Medical School, her love of science and tennis, her research into pancreatic cancer, and what her alma mater offers those who choose it as their college.

Season 6, Episode 5: “A Passion for Asking Questions”

Greg Kaster:

Learning for Life at Gustavus is produced by JJ Akin and Matthew Dobosenski of Gustavus Office of Marketing. Will Clark, senior communications studies major and videographer at Gustavus, who also provides technical expertise to the podcast, and me, your host, Greg Kaster. The views expressed in this podcast are not necessarily those of Gustavus Adolphus College.

In a 2017 profile of then Gustavus junior Katherine Katie Aney published in the student newspaper, a friend of Katie’s described her as quote, “the poster child for upholding the Gustavus values.” That was and remains a very apt description of Katie, who is now an alum, having graduated in 2018. At Gustavus, Katie excelled both academically as a triple major in mathematics, biology, and biochemistry, and athletically as a member of the women’s tennis team. This combination results in her being twice named in consecutive years to the College Sports Information Directors of America All America Women’s At-Large Teams.

Even as she excelled in her studies and tennis, Katie also found time to volunteer on and off campus and lend her support to Gustavus friends and peers. She found time as well to apply for a Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship, the most prestigious undergraduate award for students planning on careers in mathematics, the natural sciences, and engineering. This scholarship is extremely competitive, and out of some 1300 nominees from colleges and universities across the country, Katie was one of just 240 undergraduates selected for the award in 2017.

That summer, she spent 10 weeks at Harvard University as an Amgen Scholar, conducting research on immunology and pancreatic cancer. Harvard is where Katie is currently enrolled in the medical school’s Health Sciences and Technology, or HST Medical Degree Program, conducted jointly with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In the wake of this October’s Nobel Conference at Gustavus on the topic of cancer in the age of biotech, and amid the again surging COVID-19 virus, now seemed the perfect time to speak with Katie about her current research, her path to it, and her love of science and tennis, among other topics. I’m delighted she could join me.

Welcome, Katie. It’s great to have you on the podcast.

Katie Aney:

Thank you. That was a very kind introduction.

Greg Kaster:

My pleasure. As you were saying before we started recording, it sounds like this is your first podcast. I’m new to podcasting also. Quite new to this, so we’re both novices, but we’ll have some fun.

Katie Aney:

Thank you for having me.

Greg Kaster:

My pleasure. Tell us a little bit about, and tell me, right now you’re in Cambridge. Tell us a little bit about what’s going on. Are you taking in-person classes, online classes?

Katie Aney:

Yup. I’m actually in Boston, which is across the river from Cambridge. It’s very similar, but that is where the medical school is located. That is where my research lab currently is. All of our medical school classes are online this semester. We are supposed to return to clinic starting in January, which is extremely exciting, but for now, we’re all online. I am getting into research lab two or three times a week, just to sort of get experiments off the ground. I am planning on doing sort of a gap year, a research year, starting in May. I’m sort of preparing experiments and mouse models for that at this moment, so it feels nice to be back, to be getting into lab, and to be sort of productive again after such a long time back in Minnesota.

Greg Kaster:

When you say a gap year, so it’s a research gap year. Does that mean you’ll be doing the research at the medical school?

Katie Aney:

Yup. The program I’m in, HST, as you mentioned, has a lot of MDPHDs, actually, so the structure there is you take two years of medical school. You do a PHD in the middle of your medical school, and then you do your final two clinical years. Then, there’s also an option for students that are just getting their MD like myself to do just one research gap year in between your second and third year of medical school. Before I sort of put the wards in full force and do sort of all clinical stuff in my last two years, I’ll be spending a whole year in the lab that I’m currently working in, which is working on pancreatic cancer as well.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, I didn’t know about the program until I was preparing for our conversation. Just sounds fantastic.

Katie Aney:

Yes. It’s wonderful.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, lots of it, sounds like … What about place like Dana-Farber? Are they involved, too?

Katie Aney:

Yeah, so, you can do research really at any … I guess just to preface, the program is specifically designed to train physician scientists, which is why I was so drawn to it as well as sort of just the rich research ecosystem that’s in Boston and Cambridge. Any lab that’s affiliated with MIT or Harvard are options, and the students in HST are required to do a research project as well and sort of submit a thesis as a part of their medical school curriculum, which is pretty unique.

Any lab at Dana-Farber, at Beth Israel, at MIT, at Harvard, all fair game for students, which is incredible. Overwhelming when students are picking labs, but I was fortunate enough to find a super awesome lab working on pancreatic cancer. A pretty young lab that’s just kind of up and coming, so I’ve been able to be involved in a lot of their really exciting projects and sort of have an-almost graduate student or post-doc position in a lot of these super exciting projects. I’m just completely stoked to do a whole year and hopefully have a really productive experimental year and get some publications and contribute meaningfully to the pancreatic cancer world.

Greg Kaster:

No doubt you will. I love that, your phrase, a rich research ecosystem, because man, that’s one thing I loved about being … I was in love with Boston from the time I went there in high school. Then, went to Boston University for my PHD in history. Just man, just absolutely love that city, love that area. All the interplay between different institutions and departments. It’s just fantastic.

By the way, my wife Kate and I live in downtown Minneapolis in a condominium called Grant Park Condominium Building, but we met a doctor, since passed away. I don’t know if you would know his work, but he did work in pancreatic cancer. Marty, Martin Orkin, I think is his name. If you ever come across any of his stuff, did some research, but again I don’t know exactly what area. I just know it had something to do with pancreatic cancer. Wonderful guy.

Katie Aney:

The name isn’t familiar, but if I run across it, I will think of you.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah.

Katie Aney:

People often say names in the Boston area, and I just … There are so many names. I think when I was applying, I think they boast … Harvard boasts something like a 10 to one faculty to student ratio, because when you sum up all of the faculty across all of the different hospitals and institutions here, there is just so many people teaching in comparison to the 150 student classes that Harvard Medical School has. The names are not always … I’m not always great at remembering names.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, [crosstalk 00:08:01]. Yeah, if I can find an article about him or something, I’ll send it [crosstalk 00:08:04] your way.

Katie Aney:

Yeah, send it my way.

Greg Kaster:

Again, in preparing for the podcast, I came across an interview with you. I think it was in the online publication called Her Campus in 2017. You’re quoted as describing yourself as quote, “quirky, compassionate, and enthusiastic.” As we were saying right before we started recording, I have not met you before. It’s a pleasure to meet you now. We didn’t happen to cross paths on campus when you were there.

I wonder if you could, I mean, is that how you would still describe yourself? If so, what do you mean by … I’m especially interested in what you mean by quirky.

Katie Aney:

I would say probably. I don’t know. I think, I don’t know what I necessarily meant back then, but I just … think I’m quirky when it comes to scientific stuff. I’m pretty nerdy, so I’ll kind of geek out about random scientific factoids and go … down a huge rabbit hole on YouTube watching scientific videos or whatever.

I’ve always been sort of someone that likes to do little projects. Over quarantine, I got super into oil pastels. Maybe quirky just in the sense of, I have a lot of random interests. I’m not always consistent in my hobbies or activities, but I think that’s just because I’m trying to find what I’m the most interested in. I guess, excitable or, I’m not sure what my other adjective for myself is, but I’m very easily excitable. I get excited about things very easily, and so, I would say that-

Greg Kaster:

I know you love [crosstalk 00:09:57] … Yeah, I know you love learning. Quirky to me, by the way, is a compliment. The more quirky our students, the better, as far as I’m concerned. I’m all for quirky. Your intellectual curiosity, right, is just, comes through in everything I’ve read about you. Even just in the little conversation we had before recording.

I want to come back to the painting later and talk a little bit about that, [crosstalk 00:10:20] one of my questions. Tell us, you grew up in Rochester. Is that right? Rochester, Minnesota. Tell us a little bit about your background, your growing up, and how you came to choose Gustavus.

Katie Aney:

Yeah. I grew up in Rochester, which is obviously home of the Mayo Clinic. I think I have sort of that medical and research, the value of that, ingrained in me. I … originally, I knew, I’ve always known I wanted to go into science. I am really excited by research and asking questions … I wouldn’t recommend that students make their college decision based on how I did, but I based it on college sports specifically. I was super, super into hockey, and the Gustavus women’s hockey program is incredible. Their rink is on campus, and I really loved the team.

I was like, “Sweet, this is a great choice for me.” I don’t really even think I factored in the academics. When I talk to future students about their choices, Gustavus ended up being an incredible choice for me, but not in the reasons why I thought it was going to be. Because I ended up only playing hockey for a year, and I also played tennis that year. Ended up sort of falling in love with the tennis team and that program. I knew I had to pick one if I wanted to be as serious about school as I was.

My life ended up being very different than I imagined it being at Gustavus, but it all worked out for the best.

Greg Kaster:

[crosstalk 00:12:06] Hang on. That’s a point. I’m sorry. That’s a point of a liberal arts college, right? [crosstalk 00:12:12] … I actually worry about students who come in with the sort of, “This is my plan. This is what I’m going to do.”

Katie Aney:

Yup. Yup.

Greg Kaster:

It’s wonderful to see what happens, right? [crosstalk 00:12:20] Now, by the way, were you already playing tennis in high school or not? Was that already a love [crosstalk 00:12:24]?

Katie Aney:

I was. Yes. I did both hockey and tennis in high school, and lacrosse, actually. I’ve always been the type of person that has tried to kind of do as much as possible and stay as busy as possible, just because I’m, have a lot of energy and have a lot of interests as well.

I remember the tennis coach texting, Jon Carlson, texting me on one of the first days of practice. He’s like, “Hey, are you coming to practice?” I was like, “Oh, man,” and I had not even brought my correct tennis shoes to college. I just wasn’t really even mentally prepared to play tennis. Then, I ended up really loving the tennis program. As you know, the Gustavus tennis program is also a wonderful program. The legacy that the Carlsons, the women’s team coaches as well as the men’s team program, Steve Wilkinson and now Tommy Valentini, have. It’s just … a really good, I think, balanced liberal arts kind of esque sport that teaches you a lot of great life values as well.

Greg Kaster:

I agree. [crosstalk 00:13:34] We have an amazing [crosstalk 00:13:37] … I mean, athletically, it’s amazing, women’s and men’s tennis, but also the way [crosstalk 00:13:40] intersects with the liberal arts. By the way, Tommy Valentini, I want to interview him at some point. I don’t know if you know, he was a history major. Did history honors, not with me, but with a now retired colleague. He’s another example of how there are some surprising connections, and in the philosophy department now as well.

Now, tell me a little bit more about growing up in Rochester. Did you have family involved in the medical professions, or you just were sort of absorbing this from, by living in Rochester?

Katie Aney:

Yeah, no, my mom is a physician at Mayo. She does PM and R. She works a lot with spinal injuries, as well as in the sports medicine clinic … Medicine has always been sort of a part of my upbringing and sort of the value of health and medicine. Like I said, I don’t think I wanted to be … I definitely didn’t want to be a doctor until probably my senior year of college. Junior, senior year of college is when I, after I had had the experiences at Mayo Clinic and Dana-Farber.

I wouldn’t say that my upbringing in Rochester prepared me or inspired me to be a doctor, but I think it definitely instilled the value of health and medicine in me that I still carry today.

Greg Kaster:

I like Rochester, by the way. I’ve been there. I think it’s a neat city. I guess its neatness is bound up with the Mayo being there, but there’s so much going on. I don’t know if you [crosstalk 00:15:22] … Did you enjoy growing up there? I mean, I just find these interesting restaurants [crosstalk 00:15:25] … There’s a Greek restaurant there. What’s the Greek … I used to go all the time. I’m Greek American on my dad’s side. I can’t remember the name. It was really good. Somewhere in Rochester. Kind of outside of the city, center city.

Anyway, and another student I want to go interview, an alum, Justin Rhodes, his mom was a physician there, too. Grew up. What an amazing place. Just interesting to be in, I would think. Now, so, you brought to Gustavus, it sounds like, a love of science already. What is it about science that you love?

Katie Aney:

I would say I brought to Gustavus a passion for asking questions and diving deep into things. In high school, I … was probably more into physics in high school. I loved to sort of tinker around with different things and build cars and contraptions and such. Yeah, I think then getting to college, I specifically remember in my Bio 101 class, I had Pam Kittelson. I remember she said, “Every cell in the body has the same exact DNA.”

That just absolutely floored me. This was just the most incredible thing I had ever heard. I could not believe it. How do our toenail cells have the same DNA as our hair cells, as our stomach cells, as our brain cells, right? This just, I couldn’t fathom this. I went into her office hours, and I think she spent an hour with me, trying to get me to believe this, which I finally did.

Yeah, I think it just, from that point, I was very hooked on biology, specifically kind of small cell biology. Molecular biology. Then, my sophomore year, I had just decided I wasn’t going to play hockey. I knew I really wanted to get involved in research and kind of explore these scientific questions that I had in my head on a deeper scale. That’s when I got in touch with Dr. Burrack, who is incredible and completely changed the course of my education at Gustavus, and the course of my education forever.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, two of the great profs at Gustavus. Pam, you mentioned, [crosstalk 00:18:02] Professor Laura Burrack. I interviewed Laura already, and I certainly plan to interview Pam as well. They’re both … Was Pam also, was she doing the scholarship work at that point, too, helping you with the Goldwater? Or was that …

Katie Aney:

She didn’t help me. That was Amanda Nienow in the chemistry department. [crosstalk 00:18:18] Yes, who’s also wonderful, wonderful mentor.

Greg Kaster:

Yes.

Katie Aney:

Yeah, no, bless Pam for her entertaining me for an hour as a naïve freshman in my first week of biology.

Greg Kaster:

[crosstalk 00:18:34] I mean, right, that’s [crosstalk 00:18:37] ask about this, actually. Just say a little bit more about your experience at Gustavus, but it certainly one of the things I love. I did not attend a small liberal arts college. My wife did. She attended Bard College … on the Hudson there, outside of New York City. Anyway, but I attended a big state school, Northern Illinois University in Dekalb.

In my head, I wanted to be at such a place as Gustavus, where you could have that kind of close interaction with students. Talk at length about things. See the light bulbs go off. Right? Have students, as you did with Pam, have students question you. It’s just so great.

Katie Aney:

Yeah.

Greg Kaster:

Say a bit more about your experience at Gustavus. What it was that you really … loved so much about the place.

Katie Aney:

Yeah. I mean, I obviously had incredible experiences. On the tennis team, I found a really awesome community there and made a lot of lifelong friends there. As I said, it was a really well-rounded program. School always came first, which was essential for me. I really feel like I developed a lot as a person.

Something I always talk about when people ask me about Gustavus is the professors. I mean, I just connected so well with so many different professors that, like I said, spent hours with me, entertaining my naïve and silly questions that I had about the world. I think that got me so excited, built my confidence, helped me learn so much.

I think just the time that professors spend with you. Laura Burrack was my research mentor and just absolutely phenomenal. I mean, she was just … a science nerd in just the coolest possible way. She had science art hanging on her wall. She had this beaker necklace, and so I just absolutely idolized her. I wanted to be like her, and she wanted to mentor me, which was pretty amazing to me.

Greg Kaster:

Were you working in her lab at Gustavus?

Katie Aney:

Yes. I worked in her lab during the school years, and then the summers I did sort of off campus research experiences which she really encouraged me to do. I think was sort of also instrumental to how I sort of came to go into medicine in the end. I really appreciated her mentorship.

I think all of the professors there, but particularly her, just mentor with so much kindness and respect for the students, which sadly is something that you don’t always see in science, as I’ve come to see for myself and through hearing about experiences from different peers. I think I had a lot of success because of sort of the love that I was surrounded with at Gustavus.

Additionally, I mean, she just pushed me to be the best that I could be. Sort of in the best way possible. She has very high expectations for her students, but it’s in such an uplifting manner. She makes you believe in yourself and your ability. She supports you 100%. I think that’s true of so many different professors at Gustavus, and that’s one of the major strengths of Gustavus.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, I would agree. I mean, I think that’s … Just observing my colleagues and just knowing how important that is. I mean, I can remember how important it was to me as a student, to have a professor not just take an interest but sort of believe in you, right? Believe in your abilities.

The other thing you’re kind of … I don’t know if you’re alluding to this consciously or unconsciously, but kind of a question I had for you, I was thinking. I’ve been at Gustavus 30 plus, I’ve lost track, some years. There were very few women faculty period in [crosstalk 00:22:55] even in 1986. Probably even fewer in the sciences. I’m just wondering what that meant to you. I mean, how conscious were you of, “I am a … young woman who wants to be a scientist. Here, I have women professors like Pam and like Laura.”

Katie Aney:

Yeah, I have thought about this actually a lot, and I think it might be a little unconscious, because I don’t think I used to think about it. All of the research mentors that I picked up until this year have been women. Looking back, I wonder if I sort of … I think I idolized them in the way that I idolized Laura. I saw her as a mentor. I saw her as someone that I would love to be like.

I think it’s a mentorship thing, as well as sort of just an idolization thing. Yeah, having strong female mentors has been really, really instrumental in my success as well. That’s certainly available at Gustavus. Margaret Bloch Qazi … was my biology major faculty advisor as well, so her as well, I have to throw in a plug for.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, right, Margaret. Amanda. All these names. There were just so few women at the time. I used to joke, it felt like the 1950s. Coming from Boston, by the way, coming from Boston to Gustavus was [crosstalk 00:24:37] grew up in Chicago. Anyway, it’s so much better. I think all the issues around equity and women in science and sexual harassment in women in science, it’s so important to have those kinds of role models.

For male students, as well. Both, but certainly for women science students. Now, how did you … One memorable experience clearly is that moment in Pam’s class, cells. Are there other Gustavus experiences on the tennis court, off the tennis court, that you particularly remember? Whether fondly or not, I should add.

Katie Aney:

I have so many fond memories. I have some really good memories from tennis. We won the MIAC championship several years when I was there. It came down to my match at the end one of the years, and that was really exciting.

Greg Kaster:

Wow. [crosstalk 00:25:42] Winning the championship came down to your match?

Katie Aney:

The final … This was the regular season, but we knew it was for the champions of the conference. It was my match, and we were in a super tie breaker. I had lost the first set. I think it was zero six, so I was getting smoked. I just remember the entire fans from both teams surrounding the one court, and everyone just going absolutely insane after each point. That is the memory that I will definitely always hang onto. I think it’s sort of symbolic for my experience at Gustavus, where I just felt like I had a lot of people cheering me on. Even after the little points, even after the little things there were a lot of people celebrating my successes.

Greg Kaster:

[crosstalk 00:26:39] What was that, your senior year? When was that?

Katie Aney:

That was my junior year. We also won the MIAC my senior year as well. Yeah, we had a lot of success as a tennis team, which was super fun and taught me a lot of really great values. Teamwork and working with others and what it means to balance sports or something and school or work, or life or whatever else.

Greg Kaster:

Right.

Katie Aney:

I owe a lot of my time management and people skills, I think, to the tennis team. They developed that really well.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, it’s interesting. By the way, I like to hit the tennis ball with my brother in the park. Then, I think I took a … tennis class for my phy ed at Northern. It was [crosstalk 00:27:41] … I don’t remember. If I was on the team … I think I was on the team in high school, maybe, I think, briefly. It was not worth talking about. That’s a heck of a memory. That’s a wonderful memory.

The other thing that you’re saying, though, that I think is so important … Just a few days ago, I interviewed Coach Peter Haugen, who’s the head football coach at Gustavus. We talked about what you just said. First of all, there isn’t this sharp line between athletics and academics at Gustavus. The way in which what you’re learning as an athlete translates into the classroom and vice versa. While I didn’t have you as a student, I have had some tennis players, both men and women, and other athletes. As I always say, by and large, they’re some of the best students I teach, because they have the self discipline and the drive. The motivation that comes … To be a successful athlete requires certain characteristics, certain attributes you need to be a successful student as well. It’s not just physical ability.

Congratulations on that. Wow, that’s an exciting story. Was that filmed? That should be filmed. That’s like, with everyone cheering.

Katie Aney:

I wish, but I don’t think anyone has the film of it, but I’ll always remember it in my head.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, that’s a great memory. How did you get interested in the cancer research, and pancreatic cancer in particular? What [crosstalk 00:29:11] to that?

Katie Aney:

Yeah, so cancer is always something that I’ve been fascinated with. I think ever since I first started having conversations with Dr. Burrack about what her lab does, and they study mutations related to cancer and chromosome instability. Cancer, obviously, is something that’s really personal to all of our lives. It’s estimated that one in two people will get cancer in their lifetime, so I think it’s … I have very strong clinical and emotional and personal drive to study cancer.

I’m also just incredibly fascinated by cancer biology. I think it reveals a lot about our cells and what they’re able to do, because cancer cells don’t necessarily reinvent the wheel. They just sort of are able to hijack our cellular properties in order to become this terrible thing in our bodies. They can promote new blood vessels to get nutrients and invade the immune system and reprogram themselves. These are all things that our own cells are able to do and do in certain contexts, but cancer just sort of hijacks the whole process.

From a scientific standpoint, I am completely fascinated by cancer biology, and all of my work has been in cancer biology. I plan to go into oncology and sort of try to do both research and clinical aspects. For pancreatic cancer specifically, there’s so many deaths related to pancreatic cancer. The cure rate is less than 10%. It has been less than 10% for 40 years. We’re still using chemotherapy and radiation, these kind of archaic, at times, methods to try to cure pancreatic cancer.

This year has been a really sad year for pancreatic cancer. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died of pancreatic cancer. Civil rights leader and Congressman John Lewis died of pancreatic cancer. The Jeopardy host Alex Trebek just died of pancreatic cancer. It’s projected to become the second leading cause of cancer death in the near future, so it’s just, it is a huge, huge problem. It’s a really tough cancer. It’s hard to detect. It’s really hard to treat.

Yeah, scientifically, need wise in the world, emotionally, I think it’s sort of the intersection of all of my interests. I don’t know if I’ll end up specifically in pancreatic cancer, but it’s … a problem that I’m really drawn to. I dream about it. I wake up at night thinking about different pathways or different problems that we’re working on in lab, because I’m just … very interested in it and connected to it.

Greg Kaster:

In the lab, is the focus on sort of a cure or cures? What exactly are you doing?

Katie Aney:

Yeah, so our lab specifically is focused on the early stages. Pretty much the only hope for cure in pancreatic cancer is surgical resection, which I think is only an option for about 15 to 20% of patients because you have to detect it very, very early to be able to undergo surgery before it has metastasized or spread outside of the pancreas.

Our lab is interested in these very, very early changes that are happening in cells in the pancreas that will then go on to become cancerous. The goal is by understanding this early biology, we can somehow potentially detect it, potentially target it, and potentially stop it in these early stages. We’re kind of looking more at the evolution of cells and the progression of cells during the initiation of cancer, with a longterm goal of chemo prevention.

Chemo prevention, what is that? It’s being able to potentially take a drug or a pill that somehow modulates your risk of cancer. Some people have certain mutations in their pancreatic cells, and if we can sort of stabilize those mutations, because we know that those mutations are later going to go on to become cancerous, we can then reverse or halt those precancerous cells before they become cancer.

Greg Kaster:

That would be amazing, obviously.

Katie Aney:

Obviously, yes.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, go ahead.

Katie Aney:

I’m not, don’t look for these in clinic next year. This is the longterm goal that the lab has, but that’s sort of the motivation in studying these super early changes in cancer cells.

Greg Kaster:

I mean, it’s sobering that you say the approach is basically the same as 40 years ago.

Katie Aney:

Right.

Greg Kaster:

What about, were you able to see any of this October’s Nobel on cancer and biotech?

Katie Aney:

Yes. I was so jealous that I was not a student at Gustavus during that time and that I had other academic obligations. Yes, it was amazing. I … didn’t see them all, but I did see Carl June’s on car-t cells. I saw Charles Sawyers on Gleevec. Obviously, those [crosstalk 00:35:02] two very cutting edge scientific, the edge of what we know now, which is super exciting. Then, I did see Susan Chambers talking about sort of the emotional and social support for the care [crosstalk 00:35:18].

Greg Kaster:

That was amazing. Yeah, she was amazing.

Katie Aney:

Then, Chanita Hughes-Halbert’s as well. Those were probably my … four top ones.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, I saw most of them. Not all of those. Sawyer [crosstalk 00:35:33], he was a history major. I think, yeah, I’m pretty sure he was a [crosstalk 00:35:35] major, which was cool. He talked about [crosstalk 00:35:38] … He did a podcast with Lisa Heldke, who was the director [crosstalk 00:35:41] philosophy. Talked about the way in which study of history, the past informed some of his work.

The reason I brought it up is, so, how does your research connect with the biotech side of all this, if it does?

Katie Aney:

Yeah. Obviously, Boston, MIT, Cambridge has so much biotech startup companies that sort of span, expand from these labs. Our lab specifically is super young, and so we don’t have any sort of near future biotech companies that we are going to be starting or collaborating with. We do collaborate with some chemists that make these small molecule agonists, essentially drugs for the proteins that we are interested in.

Nothing right now, like I said. This chemo prevention is such a long, it’s very far in the future. Hopefully within our lifetimes, but I mean, it’s not something we’re going to get next year.

Greg Kaster:

It must take a lot of patience to be a research scientist. Am I right about that? I mean, because, right, I think we have the sense that, well, this is my sense. I don’t know how common, but you go into the lab. You do some fancy stuff, and then there are these spectacular discoveries. It can take … years, right, of just tedious … I don’t know if tedious is the right word, but say a little bit more about kind of, if there is such a thing, a typical day in the lab for you. What that’s like.

Katie Aney:

Yeah, I think right now is not so much typical just because of COVID [crosstalk 00:37:27] restrictions. Right now, our lab is trying to get all of our mouse lines set up so we can have these mice that will, we can basically induce pancreatic cancer to develop in hopefully a pretty natural way. Spontaneously. We’re sort of doing a lot of setup work. We’re setting up this new experimental design.

Right now isn’t so much typical, but yeah, I think it can be tedious. I’m a big question asker. I’m a big learner. I really love the creativity and the problem solving of science. I have found that I really need to hold onto those things, rather than just get bogged down in sort of the pipetting everyday. I really like to work with my hands, and that stuff’s really fun, too, but if you are trying to troubleshoot something and you’re just doing the same experiment over and over and over again, you’re right. It can get tedious.

I think there’s a certain amount of sort of resilience that you need to build up as a scientist and for me, that’s continuing to ask questions, continuing to return to the big picture. Continuing to try to be creative about problem solving. I think I’m trying to find that balance as a scientist at this point in my career. I think it’ll be something I’m always trying to find, but it’s fun. It’s like a treasure hunt sometimes, or like a puzzle. I enjoy [crosstalk 00:39:08].

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, like a puzzle or like a treasure hunt. I can see that. Any discipline, I mean, history, too, you’re in the archives. So much of that work is tedious, and you’re not maybe finding what you hope to find. Sometimes you find something. I’m sure this happens in the lab, too. You find something unexpected that [crosstalk 00:39:26] yeah.

I don’t think you’re ever going to lose, by the way, your love of learning and questions, so there’s no worry there. No matter how tedious the work in the lab gets. I wonder about … you’re just starting out, and so in a way this is an unfair question, but your longer term goals here coming out of this program. If you project ahead five years. Do you see yourself being primarily a researcher, a medical researcher? Or a physician, or a bit of both?

Katie Aney:

Yeah, I think a bit of both. I mean, going into Gustavus, I had no idea that sort of a research scientist career could be all in one. Then, my experiences at Mayo Clinic and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, I met all of these people that had MDs and PHDs, and they would see patients in clinic and run clinical trials. Or see patients in clinic and have a lab where they’d analyze their samples.

During those experiences, I just found that I was really drawn to the patient care side of things. I like to talk to people. I like to hear people’s stories. I hope to do both at some point, and my hope is that being a scientist will make me a better physician and understand the cutting edge stuff and the treatment options better. That being a physician will make me a better scientist, because I’ll know what the relevant questions are to be asking. I hope to do both.

I obviously want to do something in oncology because that’s where my interests lie, but what type of cancer is a completely open question that I think I get more confused on the more medical school I go to. Yeah.

Greg Kaster:

It’ll be interesting, too, to think ahead a bit. I mean, I’d say assuming Biden is elected, Joe Biden has been elected. Once he’s president, [crosstalk 00:41:31] as vice president, if I’m remembering correctly, he led a pretty major cancer research initiative.

Katie Aney:

Yeah.

Greg Kaster:

Of course, his own son, right, succumbed to brain cancer. [crosstalk 00:41:44] that could be interesting. Obviously funding is key here, especially when something like what you’re working on is going to … take years or decades.

Katie Aney:

Right. Right, right. Yeah … the Obama administration had implemented, I know that they had done a big campaign against cancer. There was a ton of research money directed towards these cancers that we haven’t seen improvements on, and that pancreatic cancer was one of them. Yeah, I’m hopeful for research money. We need it, because there’s a lot of questions to be answered still.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. This reminds me of a topic I like to ask anyone in the sciences … whether I’m podcasting with them or not. We live in a time when there is so much science denial. This goes way beyond. This is not partisan. This has been a part of our culture. I’m a historian, so I know this has been a part of our culture for such a long time.

I wonder, do you think much about that? If so, what are your thoughts about that?

Katie Aney:

Yeah … With the pandemic that we’re having right now, it’s a really fascinating time to be in medicine and science. A really hopeful time at some points. We have these incredible vaccines that are coming out, and the results look very exciting. This vaccine is very doable. There’s been this sort of historical scientific achievement and discoveries, but at the same time, we’re having this just horrific death toll across the nation. In the Midwest, especially right now, people that won’t even do the easy thing, such as wear a mask and socially distance when they can.

I hope we can have better leadership and a better example, but you mentioned history. I remember at the beginning of the pandemic, we had a lecture on the 1918 pandemic. There was an advertisement saying, “Take off your masks. Free yourself.” Duh, duh, duh. “You can’t spread it.” Like you said, history repeats itself.

I hope we can sort of regroup here and take a deep breath. Try to learn something from history as well as from what has happened up until this point. Try to be safe and smart and move forward.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, it’s funny. I began one of my courses with a lecture by a historian named Nancy Bristow, recorded lecture. It was in June. About 1918, looking at 2020 and COVID-19 through the lens of 1918. That’s when I learned, as you’re suggesting. I mean, there was an anti-mask movement then.

I also learned, amazingly, that President Woodrow Wilson never mentioned, at least not publicly, never mentioned the pandemic. Then I also did a little work on Gustavus, and I was looking at Gustavus student publications from 1918. The largest item I could find, this is all online. You can search it digitally. The largest item I could find, of course, was sort of complaining about what it had done to the football schedule.

Katie Aney:

Wow. Wow.

Greg Kaster:

Historians would say, history never repeats itself because the context is always different, but it certainly rhymes or echoes, as we say.

Katie Aney:

Yeah. [crosstalk 00:45:19] My professors are in clinic. A lot of them are on service, seeing and treating these COVID patients as well as teaching us online. I think I have just been really in awe of them and in awe of all of the healthcare heroes across our nation during this time. Really thankful for them.

Greg Kaster:

Same here. It’s just, I have a brother-in-law who’s a neuro physician who’s been involved with it in Phoenix. Also, I just read something. This relates to what you were saying. I read, it was, I believe, a nurse in maybe South Dakota or North Dakota. I think South Dakota, but just the other day in the New York Times or Washington Post.

She’s writing an op-ed about patients who are sadly dying of COVID in the ER, in the ward, and still in denial. I mean, still saying it’s not COVID. This isn’t real. I mean, I just don’t understand how much of it … This is another topic, obviously, but how much [crosstalk 00:46:16].

Katie Aney:

We could do a whole podcast on that.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, yeah, yeah, we could.

Katie Aney:

Yeah.

Greg Kaster:

Really, I’m not a scientist, but I have long been interested in science. It’s one of the things I really do like about Gustavus. Its strength in science and the humanities and the arts. Yeah, something, we have to address this just refusal to believe in science. Not that science is infallible. Far from it, but there’s something to be said for it in the 21st century, I would sure argue, as I know you would, too.

That is another podcast, though. Let’s switch [crosstalk 00:46:51] dramatically and talk a little bit more about Gustavus. Let me, as I like to do with current students and alum … especially young alums like you. Make your pitch for Gustavus as a place. Imagine you’re speaking to someone who’s considering enrolling and isn’t a tennis player.

Katie Aney:

Yeah.

Greg Kaster:

[crosstalk 00:47:17] What’s the pitch?

Katie Aney:

I think that whatever you end up going into or whatever path you go down, Gustavus will support you down that path. It doesn’t matter if you come in thinking you’re going to be a hockey player like me, and then switch to tennis, and then switch to science, and then switch to medicine. I think the community at Gustavus and the liberal arts education that it provides will ensure your success.

I think it teaches you the liberal arts education and just the whole culture teaches you hard work. It teaches you a lot of soft skills that are really critical to have. Then, I think just another point on Gustavus is just the community. Not only the professors that I have continued to mention, because they’re so amazing and so supportive and have built me up so much into the person that I am today, but also just the fellow students are really wonderful.

I think anyone can find a community and find sort of their path at Gustavus in their own way.

Greg Kaster:

All well said. I certainly agree. The theme of community keeps coming back, and it can sound like a cliché, but it really is true at Gustavus. The other thing I cannot, I mean, I would be remiss, I feel, if I didn’t raise this with you by way of concluding, is the topic of ice cream. Because [crosstalk 00:48:55] preparing for this podcast, I see Katie eating an ice cream come up quite a bit.

By the way, [crosstalk 00:49:05] in Boston. You’re in ice cream heaven there, but what is it about ice cream that you like?

Katie Aney:

I really love ice cream. I don’t know where these terms are co-occurring, but I am not mad about it at all. That’s awesome. I don’t know. I just love ice cream. I think it’s definitely my favorite food. Yeah, J. P. Licks in Boston is amazing.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah.

Katie Aney:

I talk my friends into getting ice cream more often than not, so I think it’s just something that brings people together. It’s [crosstalk 00:49:40] delicious.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, boy, I have so many fond memories of J. P. Licks. I don’t know if Emack and Bolio’s is still around.

Katie Aney:

So good.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. It’s good, yeah.

Katie Aney:

[crosstalk 00:49:50] in Cambridge, oh, man. The ice cream in Boston is, you got to come to Boston for the ice cream.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, well, you made a good choice. You’ve got Harvard, the medical school, and ice cream heaven. Good for you. [crosstalk 00:50:05] Katie, it’s been fun to get to know you this way. Hopefully, look, maybe one day we’ll have lunch in Boston when we can get out [crosstalk 00:50:13]. Kate and I go often. It’d be a pleasure.

Katie Aney:

Yup.

Greg Kaster:

All the best with your research and everything. Take good care, and thank you so much.

Katie Aney:

Yup. Of course. Thank you as well, and good luck with the podcast.

Greg Kaster:

Thank you [crosstalk 00:50:28]. All right. It’s been a lot of fun. It’s been fun speaking with you. Take care. Bye-bye.

Katie Aney:

Bye.

 

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Media Contact: Director of Media Relations and Internal Communication JJ Akin
jakin@gustavus.edu
507-933-7510

 

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