Triple-negative breast cancer’s propensity to spread makes it one of the most aggressive, difficult-to-treat forms of the disease. There are currently no existing therapies for this cancer, which commonly metastasizes to the brain, but Terricka Williams, an Honors College Path student and sophomore biology major from Maumelle, Arkansas, is hoping to change that: She is researching what makes this cancer so devastating, as well as potential ways to fight it. Terricka is working closely with her mentor, biology professor Dr. Tameka Jennings, to determine the role a particular protein plays in contributing to both metastasis and cancer cachexia, or the loss of at least 5% of an individual’s body mass due to disease.
Though Terricka is relatively new to Dr. Jenning’s lab, she certainly has the requisite confidence of a premed researcher: “We are going to cure triple negative breast cancer,” she declares. We sat down with Terricka to discuss this confidence, her research and the path that led her to both.
Why cancer research?
“We can go so much further with biological research now than we ever could in the past, and as a pre-med student I wanted to get my hands on something I could help create, maybe even cure. Multiple people in my family have had battles with breast cancer. Luckily they went into remission multiple times, but my grandmother had lung cancer that metastasized to her brain. So when I heard about this lab, I wanted to understand the science behind that process.”
“In the lab, once you start you realize how meticulous you have to be, and how careful, because any little thing could cause contamination and ruin our whole cell line, along with all the work we’ve put into it. It can be hard when using pipettes to make sure everything stays completely sterile at all times – we’re learning now how to plate cells, and how to properly multiply them to create the cell lines. Even having too many or too few cells in one of our plates – that’s not good.”
“Working with Dr. Jennings has been so great! Research professors are really passionate about what they do, and want others to be, too. Sometimes they have trouble communicating this passion, but Dr. Jennings takes the time to actually teach her lab assistants, and help us understand how and why she is passionate about this research. Before we even became a part of the lab, we knew what we would be doing and what the long-term goals were. When you can actually feel that passion, it makes you passionate, too. And this makes for an overall really great environment.”
“Without Path I would have had to do a lot more research into labs and faculty on campus to find a lab I was interested in. I was able to get in contact with Dr. Jennings through Terrance [Boyd, previous director of the Path Program]. Path not only gave me the resources to get involved with research, but it gave me the confidence to go out there and try to get what I want. This is a big campus; I’m one little person among 27,000 people, and I’m in a program that can put me in line with all of the things, and all of the people, and all of the opportunities that I might have missed, as one out of 27,000.”
“I would like to base my honors thesis off my work in the lab. I get these little ideas as I work, and I start asking questions, and it just spirals. Ultimately, though, I want to be an obstetrician and open my own clinic, in which I also plan to have a safe haven for women and children.”