Ph.D. Candidate at Sylvester Receives Prestigious F31 NCI Grant
Skye Montoya, a Ph.D. candidate in cancer biology at Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, has received a prestigious F31 grant from the National Cancer Institute (NCI). The NCI Ruth L. Kirschstein NRSA for Individual Predoctoral Fellows will provide $47,000 a year for three years to support tuition, conferences, and other educational opportunities.
“This grant underscores that the Miller School has top-notch graduate programs,” said Kerry Burnstein, Ph.D., associate director for education and training at Sylvester and chair of the Department of Molecular and Cellular Pharmacology at the Miller School. “Our trainees learn to think analytically, communicate the science and, with their mentors’ guidance, develop and execute an independent research project.”
Montoya is a researcher in Dr. Justin Taylor’s lab, which studies blood cancer mutations and how these can be targeted with novel therapies. Her research is focused on a group of enzymes, called tyrosine kinases, which play a major role in many cancers. Tyrosine kinase inhibitors can be effective anti-cancer treatments; however, eventually, cancers can learn to resist. Montoya and others in the Taylor lab want to understand why.
“I enjoy the thrill of figuring it out and then seeing the translational component of it, working with patients in clinical trials,” said Montoya. “I study signaling pathways, and there’s a million different ways it could work. It’s like trying to figure out a puzzle without the picture on the box.”
A Circuitous Pathway
Originally from Smyrna, Georgia, just north of Atlanta, Montoya was in a biomedical research magnet program at her high school before going to Kennesaw State University. She studied nursing for three years but kept wondering if research might be a better fit.
“In high school, we had a paper about what we wanted to do,” said Montoya. “At the time, I wrote that I wanted to do research, but I didn’t listen to myself. I finally accepted that I was more interested in the science.”
One of her professors at Kennesaw State saw her interest and drive and suggested she apply to the Miller School of Medicine for her Ph.D. Montoya believes it has been a great fit, and she has made major research contributions. Earlier this year, she co-authored a paper in the New England Journal of Medicine that identified potential resistance mechanisms to an emerging cancer therapy.
Montoya was sponsored for the grant by Maria Figueroa, M.D., associate professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, and Justin Taylor, M.D., assistant professor at Sylvester in the Division of Hematology, who both saw the incredible skills Montoya brings to the table.
“I think one of her strengths is the ability to learn new techniques and quickly pick up on the concepts and knowledge base necessary for a fast-paced project,” said Dr. Taylor. “She works hard, both physically in the lab — all the time — as well as constantly thinking about her project and coming up with new ideas.”
For Montoya, the Taylor lab has been a great place to explore interesting research and figure out her next steps. She appreciates the mentorship Dr. Taylor has provided.
“From day one, he sat down and asked about my goals,” said Montoya. “He’ll talk through ideas with me, no matter what time of day it is, which is wonderful.”
Montoya has already collected most of the data for her upcoming follow-up paper, which she hopes to submit this year. She expects to graduate in spring 2024, but there’s still the matter of writing her dissertation. After that, she hopes to pursue a postdoctoral fellowship in another cancer lab.
“I really want to continue studying cancer,” said Montoya, “and between the New England Journal of Medicine paper and the grant, I’m hoping I have a pretty good chance.”
Tags: Dr. Justin Taylor, Dr. Kerry Burnstein, Dr. Maria Figueroa, Kerry Burnstein, Miller School of Medicine, National Cancer Institute, NCI F31 grant, NCI Ruth L. Kirschstein NRSA, NEJM, New England Journal of Medicine, Skye Gorman Montoya, Skye Montoya, Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center, The New England Journal of Medicine