Feature: Student researchers win big at cancer research conference

Among the dozens of clinicians, researchers, administrators, health care workers and students who logged on to attend the Windsor Cancer Research Group (WCRG)’s Biennial Cancer Research Conference in November 2020, three medical students were eagerly awaiting their opportunity to present research projects for the very first time. 

Sarang Upneja, Medicine Class of 2022, Nathan Doupnik and Vanessa Montemurri, Medicine Class of 2023, took part in the conference’s poster presentation competition and the rapid fire session, which challenges researchers to introduce and explain their projects in a three-minute oral presentation. 

Competing against other medical students at the conference, these three emerged on top in the Rapid Fire session; Upneja claiming first place, Montemurri second and Doupnik coming in third.

“The Rapid Fire session is a very useful exercise, because it made me look at my research in a different light,” Montemurri said. “To be able to effectively condense it into three minutes, you really have to understand your research and what makes it important.”

Montemurri’s research project, supervised by WCRG Clinical Director Dr. Caroline Hamm, examined a subset of the breast cancer population through retrospective chart reviews to study how they responded to a treatment regimen containing carboplatin. Montemurri says she was encouraged to see these patients had improved outcomes, and looks forward to seeing the study continue to grow.

All three students conducted cancer research as part of the Schulich-UWindsor Opportunities for Research Excellence Program (SWORP), which provides funding for and helps facilitate connection between potential research supervisors and medical students to undertake research projects. 

“SWORP organizes a mingle and meet session, where you get to become familiar with some of the Windsor physicians and their areas of research. You socialize and meet someone you have a common interest with,” Doupnik explained.

That is how he met his supervisor, Dr. Khalid Hirmiz. Dr. Hirmiz’s supervision, Doupnik studied early stage outcomes in non-small cell lung cancer patients, specifically in Windsor, who are receiving a relatively novel type of treatment called stereotactic radiation therapy.

“I’m very happy I chose this specific project, because it has potential to directly benefit patients, especially locally, which is important to me because Windsor is my home,” he said. “We’re lucky that Windsor is a regional hub for cancer research; there’s a lot of activity at the Windsor Regional Cancer Centre, and lots of opportunities like this conference for medical and graduate students.”

“It’s a unique environment to conduct cancer research because you have so much centralized, accessible patient information because the Centre serves the whole region,” Montemurri reflected.

As a graduate of the Bachelor of Nursing and Biological Sciences programs at the University of Windsor, Upneja says she has always been a scientifically curious person, but conducting her own research project always seemed like an intimidating and unattainable process. Upneja says she was intrigued by the logistics of the research process itself, and gained a lot of insight under Dr. Hamm’s supervision.

“Dr. Hamm’s clinical trial work extremely busy, since she is involved in so many different aspects from pharmaceuticals to funding. I wanted to gain some of these experiences and learn from her how she does it. She’s very accomplished in her field and it was very inspiring to work with her,” Upneja shared.

Upneja’s research focused on patients with triple-negative breast cancer, and examined the clinical significance of ‘grade’ — a measure of how different a tumour is from regular cells – in predicting treatment success and relapse. Upneja says her initial foray into the world of research, and her success at the conference, has encouraged her to cultivate her interest and she hopes to continue seeking out research opportunities.

For Doupnik as well, this research experience has left an impression on his future plans. With a project and successful conference presentation under his belt, he hopes to broaden his research horizons and potentially pursue quality improvement project opportunities in neurology.

“I also hope to eventually go into emergency medicine, I enjoy working with undiagnosed patients where I have to play detective and figure out what’s going wrong,” he said. “Preparing for this conference competition emphasized to me the importance of brief and effective communication, which is relevant in emergent patient situations.”

In addition to the competition portion of the conference, the students said they appreciated an opportunity to connect with local cancer researchers and see how their projects fit into the larger research objectives of the WCRG.

“I loved hearing about my classmates’ projects and what they’ve been doing. So many physicians offered me advice on things to look into to help my project,” Montemurri shared. “This experience has helped me see how much you can accomplish in research as a student, so I’m excited to see what can be done with further training and education.”