To understand the value of STEM courses, you only had to listen in on one of Rye High School science teacher Bruna Mascia’s recent classes at which cancer research scientist Alley Welsh was the guest speaker.
By Sarah Varney
To understand the value of STEM courses, you only had to listen in on one of Rye High School science teacher Bruna Mascia’s recent classes at which cancer research scientist Alley Welsh was the guest speaker. Welsh delivered a dual message: specialization has come to cancer research and research is a rewarding career path for students drawn to lab work.
Currently the head of a research project at Foundation 1 Medicine in Cambridge, Mass., Welsh explained that, “the era of treating cancers with a ‘one size fits all’ approach is coming to an end. The education piece in getting that message out is very important. If any of you are interested in a career in science, there are many avenues, many ways to be involved. We need computer scientists, mathematicians, and a number of other types of scientists for this kind of research.”
In broad strokes, Welsh described her roundabout journey into a career in science. “Back in middle and high school I wasn’t good in science. I was good at math and field hockey and I loved art,” she said.
During her freshman year at Dartmouth, her sister was diagnosed with cancer and Welsh decided to pursue a science degree with a focus on science and cancer research. She went on to earn a Ph.D. in molecular medicine at Yale.
At Sloan-Kettering, Welsh worked on a project to develop a cancer test for clinicians. But after four years, her interest in the project was fading and the desire to pursue her love of art began to tug at her.
She ended up in Joshua Tree, California, working as an apprentice to Steven Reiman, who pioneered the field of geokinetic sculpting. She spent months helping create giant metal sculptures with multiple moving parts that are balanced delicately on tall tree-like bases.
But one day she received a call from Foundation 1 Medicine, “and pretty soon I was loading my car up and moving east,” Welsh recalled.
In her current role, Welsh feels she is “making a difference every day.” She heads up a project to create a simple blood test that will pinpoint the genomes causing the specific cancer in a patient.
Finding the gene alterations “is like looking for a needle in a haystack,” said Welsh. “But with the capability of untangling genes we can do in three days what used to take 30 days.” There are now about 15 approved drugs, Welsh noted, but there are over 700 compounds in development to hit 150 targets. Herceptin is one such drug. Used originally to disrupt breast cancer cells, scientists have learned that it also works on other cancer cells.
Welsh’s unspoken message is that the future looks bright for cures for specific cancers and there are plenty of career opportunities for young people who are good at math and science.