Over the next several months you’ll meet a new CPIC epidemiologist to give you insights into their world. You’ll discover answers to such burning questions as: What do they do? How are they helping to stop cancer before it starts? Along with surprising facts about them. To kick off the series, get to know Ingrid Oakley-Girvan.
How long have you been with CPIC?
I started in 2002.
What’s a typical day like?
I'll have meetings or calls with collaborators in the morning and then write papers or grants in the afternoon and often well into the evening. On some days I'll work directly with study participants that have questions and meet with my teams to go over questions on projects.
Who or what inspired your interest in epidemiology?
A combination of professors conducting different types of epidemiology. I was really inspired to consider epidemiology by the ability to combine different fields of expertise such as biology, genetics, medicine, public health and statistics.
What do you like best about what you do?
I love making a difference and helping people. Knowing that I'm contributing to help reduce the number of people getting cancer and eliminating suffering from the disease or side effects is incredibly rewarding. I also love interacting with collaborative teams and identifying innovative ways to stop cancer from occurring and minimizing its impact when it does happen.
What are your areas of focus?
I'm focused on combining technology and biomarkers that help us understand what's going on in the human body and the tissue microenvironment where cancer starts and grows. My primary goals are to make it easy for people to avoid cancer and to treat it quickly and effectively when it does happen.
What are you working on now?
My work is focused on new approaches to help people easily monitor their health in real time so they can act early to prevent cancer and enjoy a better quality of life after a cancer diagnosis. I'm particularly interested in evaluating the tissue microenvironment and how our daily activities impact cells to promote or prevent cancer.
Right now, I'm working on several projects that include small innovative devices, mobile technology, patient reported outcomes, nutritional therapeutics, and biomarkers of aging and inflammation. The goal is to combine carefully collected data to create personalized algorithms that predict disease and provide earlier cancer and recurrence detection.
Advances in technology and the growing interest in individual wellness make this an exciting time to be doing science that translates into improving people's lives. My passion has always been to help others feel better and to ease suffering. I'm humbled and grateful to be working with amazing colleagues and doing such important work.
What do you like to do in your free time?
I love to hike, travel, dabble in art, and spend electronic-free time with my friends and family.
Anything our CPIC readers would be surprised to learn about you?
I was in the US Peace Corps for two years teaching math, science, and health in the small mountain kingdom of Lesotho in South Africa. In my early research career I published work on taste buds while at the University of Michigan and helped develop the scopolamine patch for seasickness with a biotechnology company.
People are at the heart of cancer prevention research
Only 7% of the National Cancer Institute’s budget is dedicated to cancer prevention. In the last ten years, these funds have decreased by a whopping 25%, which means many worthy cancer prevention initiatives simply go unfunded. In this interview with Karyn Taylor, a research interviewer/ phlebotomist for the Cancer Prevention Institute of California, she discusses why study participants get involved in cancer prevention studies and the importance of this research.
Over the past five years, Taylor has been involved with two projects within the California Teachers Study. Launched 21 years ago, this is an ongoing statewide initiative involving over 133,000 active and retired female school teachers and administrators in California to identify factors influencing women’s health.
The youngest study participants are now in their early 40s and the oldest participants are now in their 90s. Some participants have cancer while others do not. These teachers were motivated to get involved as many had daughters of their own and had experienced the heartbreak of cancer through family members and fellow teachers.
In her field work, Taylor contacts select study participants from all over Northern California, interviews them in their homes and collects blood samples. The teachers are drawn from a wide range of diverse backgrounds, from farming communities to urban areas. Last year alone, she drove a total of 23,000 miles making visits.
From 2011 through 2014, her work supported a breast cancer study. For the past three years, she has been collecting biological samples for a biobank study to identify environmental and genetic factors that lead cancer and other diseases that affect women’s health.
Establishing trust and rapport, starting with the initial phone conversation, is an important part of her job. Some participants are nervous about giving blood. As Taylor described, “I hold the study participants in such high esteem for their willingness to be part of a research project that has the potential to better the lives of generations of women to come.”
By the time she meets participants face-to-face, she feels she already knows them. In Taylor’s words, “I have learned to put others at ease and to be a better listener and communicator.”
She sometimes visits participants who are now in their 80s and 90s -- some have lost their spouse. They are lonely and welcome the company. While her job is to ask questions, she often finds herself listening and comforting them. Participants will offer her coffee and cookies, invite her to lunch or give her a bag of lemons they just picked from their yard. She’s met with teachers as early at 5:30 in the morning and teachers have found time to fit her in between classes.
She’ll never forget the experience of meeting study participants in hospice care. Although they knew it was too late for them, they were still interested in contributing to the study. These brave women recognized the importance of their participation for future generations. Taylor notes, “I have been brought to tears on several occasions, and been reminded on numerous occasions about the innate goodness in people.” Other times she has laughed uncontrollably with study participants. While her role doesn’t change from day to day, she finds each day is different.
As a mother of twin girls, she wholeheartedly understands the importance of the work she’s doing. For many years, many studies involved only men and the results were applied to women. She’s thrilled to be part of this important women-only study. Taylor says, “I consider it a privilege to be involved.”
Technology has evolved over the five years since she started doing this work. She no longer takes notes during an interview. She simply enters information using a tablet, which is immediately uploaded into a customized database for researchers.
As a result, data from each participant is immediately aggregated into the large body of information. By shortening the timeframe between data collection and analysis, findings and recommendations are available sooner which is critically important to Get in Front
Funding for the data collection phase of the biobank study will end in September. You can make a difference. Please join CPIC in our quest to stop cancer before it starts. Your donation to CPIC
will help fund future studies so that we can gain more important insights
into the causes of cancer.
You can choose to designate your gift to the Research Investment Fund. This fund provides researchers with the resources they need, including pilot study support and continuing education opportunities. To make a donation to this fund, scroll down to the special purpose section on the donate page and type “Research Investment Fund.”
Please help us
to fulfill the promise of a world without cancer.
Biden’s “Moonshot” Plan to Cure Cancer
CPIC CEO Donna Randall Shares Her Perspective
Vice President Joe Biden’s “Moonshot” plan to cure cancer, as President Obama stated in his final State of the Union address earlier this month, has resolved to "break down silos and bring all the cancer fighters together—to work together, share information, and end cancer as we know it.”
For over 40 years, the Cancer Prevention Institute of California (CPIC) has partnered with the nation’s leading cancer fighting organizations, including the Stanford Cancer Institute, the National Cancer Institute, and with educators, patients, clinicians and scientists worldwide.
Because CPIC is an independent research institute, we are uniquely positioned as an unbiased, trusted third party. We are free to choose our partners and collaborators, and because we are small, we are nimble and flexible.
The Greater Bay Area Cancer Registry (GBACR), managed by CPIC, has gathered information about all cancers diagnosed or treated in a nine-county area since 1973. Information collected by the GBACR becomes part of state and federal population-based registries whose mission is to monitor cancer occurrence at the state and national levels. Data from the GBACR have contributed to the National Cancer Institute's Surveillance, Epidemiology and End Results (SEER) program and the statewide California Cancer Registry, which conducts essential monitoring of cancer occurrence and survival in California.
CPIC scientists are also frequent contributors to major scientific journals, and often present their findings at important cancer-related conferences. Our research has been covered by numerous local, national and international media outlets, such as The New York Times and The Washington Post.
Although cancer death rates are dropping nationally and in the Greater Bay Area, cancer remains a leading killer of Americans — there were an estimated 589,430 cancer deaths in 2015.
At CPIC, we’re committed to finding out why one person gets cancer and another does not. Why cancer is more common in some geographic areas or among certain racial/ethnic groups. The San Francisco Bay Area is a region of great diversity. This diversity helps us to gain important insights into the unequal burden of cancer across diverse populations.
Biden’s plan describes increased funding, from both the government and the private sector. In December, Congress passed a bill to increase funding for the National Institutes of Health by $264 million. It’s my hope the spending plan increases the allocation of cancer prevention research funds beyond the 5% earmarked today. It’s not enough. We need to double that amount!
With your continued support of cancer prevention, we can continue to get in front of cancer and fulfill the vision stated by President Obama in his final address, “For the loved ones we’ve all lost, for the family we can still save, let’s make America the country that cures cancer once and for all.”
Research Kudos: Scarlett Lin Gomez, PhD
Impacting Health Disparities at the National Level
CPIC Research Scientist Scarlett Lin Gomez, PhD has received national recognition for her contributions to understanding the disparities in cancer incidence and outcomes that exist among Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander (AANHPI) populations. This group collectively is the most rapidly growing racial/ethnic group in the U.S., and is very diverse, representing more than 30 countries and 100 languages.
Scarlett Lin Gomez, Ph.D.
Most cancer research considers the AANPHI population in aggregate, as one entity, masking important differences across specific groups. According to Dr. Gomez, members of the AANHPI population bear unique burdens of incidence and outcomes for certain cancer types and have substantial variability in cancer incidence and survival patterns across their ethnic groups.
She authored an editorial on this subject that appeared in the November 2014 issue of the journal Cancer Epidemiology Biomarkers and Prevention. As guest editor of a special section in the same issue, Dr. Gomez oversaw publication of seven original articles and a commentary on the importance of understanding the distinct subgroups within the AANHPI population.
Her work has captured the attention of her peers, who have sought her input at the national level. This includes a recent invitation to present at the National Cancer Institute’s “Think Tank on Understudied Populations in Cancer Epidemiologic Research: Implications on Future Needs,” a one-and-a-half day program taking place in September. Dr. Gomez’s contribution on current cancer research gaps among AANHPI populations will lead to greater discussions regarding the current landscape of cancer epidemiologic research in understudied populations, and identify priorities for future research, according to NCI organizers.
Earlier this year, Dr. Gomez was invited to serve as a senior editor of Cancer Epidemiology Biomarkers & Prevention (CEBP), which requires reviewing 80 or more manuscripts per year and positions her to help shape the quality and direction of the science of epidemiology.
In April, Dr. Gomez accepted an invitation to join the Health Disparities Committee of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO), the preeminent organization in the field of clinical cancer research. The purpose of this committee is to guide ASCO’s long-term strategy for effectively addressing healthcare disparities across the cancer care continuum from prevention to end-of-life care, and to provide leadership in this area.
Hard Work and Balance Lead to Success for CPIC Intern
This past year we were joined at CPIC by a bright young intern named Alexander Nguyen. Alex recently graduated from Summit San Jose: Tahoma High School and is on his way to Boston University in the fall to study biology with a specialization in neurobiology.
CPIC CEO Donna Randall
with Alex Nguyen at
the presentation of Alex's
senior internship project.
Image: Thao Nguyen
Alex worked with CPIC Research Scientist Salma Shariff-Marco to update the Contextual Factors Working Group clearinghouse of neighborhood data resources. He updated information on 66 existing data sources and identified 15 additional new sources. Alex also had an opportunity to observe and test CPIC’s pilot audit tool for a Google Street View project currently underway.
According to Dr. Shariff Marco, Alex learned quickly and demonstrated he could work independently.
“I learned all about the working world specifically and what scientists who study public health actually do,” Alex says. “I enjoyed the freedom I was given in my cubicle, which is something that a high school student does not get in a normal classroom setting.”
Time management is an important skill Alex gained during his internship at CPIC that will benefit him wherever he goes in life, but particularly as he transitions into college. “It was a challenge to manage my time responsibly and get my tasks done for the day,” he says.
Alex aspires to live a well-balanced lifestyle. To him this means achieving academic excellence,
while continuing to compete and progress in his hobby of natural bodybuilding. He believes strongly in the idea of prevention in life, specifically with respect to obesity.
One of Alex's recent accomplishments
is placing second in the Teen and the
Men's categories of his first natural
bodybuilding competition. Alex and
his sister, My My, posed with
trophies after the competition,
June 13, 2015.
Image: Thao Nguyen
“What if America’s youth knew how to properly eat and exercise?” Alex asks. “Something like that would prevent obesity and save a lot of money, but most importantly, a lot of lives. I hope to become an influential physician who is really able to help change the world in that direction.”
Alex credits his father, Thao Nguyen, as inspiring him to work hard. Mr. Nguyen was among the many refugees who fled Vietnam in the late 1970s. Arriving alone in the U.S., Mr. Nguyen managed to study hard and receive an engineering degree. He now works at Facebook.
“Everything is the product of hard work and if you want something bad enough, you will achieve it,” Alex says. He found his internship at CPIC extremely rewarding. “I was so honored to work alongside the scientists of CPIC,” he says.
“I am confident that Alex has a bright future ahead of him, and I look forward to hearing about his many accomplishments,” Dr. Shariff-Marco says.