Focus

 

 

A Stitch in Time with Cancer Research

Lilian Kabeche loves her cancer research so much she embroidered her lab coat with it.

Upon approaching Lilian Kabeche's desk in the Duane Compton lab in the Remsen research building at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth, the first thing that a visitor notices is the bubblegum pink lab coat hanging from her chair.

Focus article photo

Lilian Kabeche, cancer researcher and PhD candidate at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth.

"It's my pride and joy!" exclaims Kabeche. "I made it myself." As she points out the hand drawn pictures of cell division that decorate the pockets, one gets the distinct impression that Kabeche loves what she does.

In fact, you'd be hard pressed to find someone more in love with science—or Dartmouth in general—than Lilian Kabeche, a fourth-year PhD student in biochemistry. Kabeche's research is concerned with understanding the essential aspects of mitosis, specifically the differences between cancer cells and normal diploid cells.

Lily Kabeche's lab coat

"I (heart) Mitosis" – Someday, Lily's work may lead to more effective cancer treatments.

More effective cancer treatments

"Cancer cells often mis-segregate chromosomes," says Lilian. "We're trying to fix this using proteins that control microtubule dynamics."

"Most metastatic tumors are chromosomally unstable, which means that they are more aggressive and generally less resistant to treatments," she explains. Lilian and her lab group hope that the research they are currently doing—attempting to find ways to maintain chromatic stability within such tumors—will lead to more effective cancer treatments.

Kabeche likens science to a puzzle for which she must not only find the missing pieces, but also "create [her] own pieces." As an undergraduate at the University of Miami, she majored in microbiology, but always gravitated towards research as opposed to practicing medicine. "I don't do well with blood and needles," laughs Kabeche.

"Dartmouth is the opposite of Miami, and that's what appealed to me," says Kabeche.  During her initial visit, Lilian was taken with all aspects of the Dartmouth experience, from its picturesque location to its small, "understatedly awesome" graduate community. "I thought, ‘This is where I have to be, and where I want to go.'"

The yoda of cancer research

Entering in the MCB program at Dartmouth, Lilian was able to "study a little bit of everything," rotating between lab groups. With a background in microbiology, she knew she wanted to do work with pathogens, and eventually found herself drawn to Duane Compton's research on cancerous cells. After seeing Compton give a talk about chromosomes, Lilian said her research interest "just clicked" into place.

"Duane has an enthusiasm that makes you understand the importance of the research he's doing, and makes you want to do it also," explains Kabeche, who eventually joined Compton's lab at the end of her rotations.

Describing Compton's demeanor as "Yoda-like", Kabeche credits her advisor with helping her develop both in and out of the lab. In fact, it was Compton who suggested that Lilian participate in recruitment efforts for Dartmouth. This past November, Kabeche attended ABRCMS (Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students).  ABRCMS is the largest professional conference for biomedical and behavioral students, and is designed to encourage underrepresented minority students to pursue advanced degrees in the sciences.

"It was awesome talking to people about Dartmouth," says Kabeche. "And it was great to be able to tell them that yes, you will feel comfortable as a minority student. Yes, you will fit in... I hope I convinced some students to come!"

Talking science – and "Jersey Shore"

Apart from her recruiting efforts with the Graduate Studies Office, Kabeche has a fairly successful track record of convincing students to come to Dartmouth—most notably her own younger sister, Ruth, who is a second year graduate student in the Moseley lab. The sisters live together in Sachem Village, where Lilian jokes that they "talk science, but also ‘Jersey Shore.'"

"I'm Hispanic, and family is everything to me," says Lilian. "My sister is two doors down from me in the lab—it's wonderful."

Lilian describes their relationship as very close, and was incredibly proud of Ruth's first publication in MBOC. Lilian's own first publication, in Current Bio, is forthcoming. "I had to get one up on her," jokes Lilian.Given that both the Kabeche sisters are scientists, one might assume that their parents are scientists as well.

"Not at all," laughs Lilian. "We'll talk at the dinner table about how excited we are about specific things that happened in the lab, but they're just as excited as we are. They're incredibly supportive."

Kabeche is unsure of her plans after completing her PhD, but describes eventually leaving Dartmouth as a daunting prospect.

"It's hard," says Kabeche. "This [the lab group] is my family, too.  I see them more than I see even my own parents—sometimes even my own sister, who's right down the hall!"

Article and photographs by Erin O'Flaherty. A slightly different version of this article originally appeared in The Graduate Forum published online by Dartmouth College.

May 29, 2012