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Setting the Stage for Success: The Busy Life of a Graduate Student at Wistar

Gretchen Alicea is a graduate student at The Wistar Institute and is enrolled in the Ph.D. Program in Cancer Biology overseen jointly by Wistar and University of the Sciences (USciences). She has a lot on her plate: She is conducting exciting research for her Ph.D. thesis, has just submitted a paper for publication and is preparing to graduate next year, all the while raising two small children. Yet, she exudes energy and enthusiasm.

Born and educated in Puerto Rico and trained as a research technician in Tampa at the Moffit Cancer Center, Alicea had her sights set on entering a graduate program. Upon speaking with Wistar’s Meenhard Herlyn, D.V.M., D.Sc., professor in the Molecular and Cellular Oncogenesis Program and director of Wistar’s Melanoma Research Center, about his lab’s research, she knew Wistar was the place to be. Dr. Herlyn advised her to apply to the Wistar/USciences Ph.D. Program in Cancer Biology.

“I am passionate about cancer research and I think melanoma is a particularly exciting field because of the availability of several experimental models,” said Alicea. “So, I jumped at the opportunity to work on my Ph.D. thesis at Wistar, which is a prestigious and renowned place for cancer research.” 

“Enrollment in the program is selective,” said Brian Keith, Ph.D., dean of Biomedical Studies at Wistar. “But we base our selection process on the candidate’s drive, motivation and previous lab experience more than on their grades on paper. We find that our students hit the ground running.”
 
Alicea was a successful candidate because she had worked in a lab as a technician and during that time, she had contributed to the publication of two papers.

“Candidates are expected to be motivated and demonstrate that in their application to the program,” said Alicea. “They must show critical thinking and have a well-thought-out idea of the particular labs they would like to join.”

Coming from a warm country and having lived in Florida, Philadelphia was Gretchen’s first approach with the Northeast winter. “I hated the cold but being accepted in the Program was worth dealing with it for sure.”

Alicea remembers the first two years as very demanding yet exciting, as students are required to take courses, apply their skills while rotating in three Wistar labs (to find the best fit) and also teach undergraduate classes.

“Even if it was intense, the experience trained me in juggling different tasks, which I think is a very valuable skill for a researcher,” said Alicea. “I think the program sets you up to be a well-rounded scientist.” 

After completing her rotations, Alicea decided to stay in the lab of Ashani Weeraratna, Ph.D., in the Immunology, Microenvironment and Metastasis Program. Dr. Weeraratna helped her choose and design her own project and obtain funding for her research.

Alicea is studying the role of the melanoma microenvironment in elderly patients, focusing on fibroblasts and the changes in their cellular metabolism that favor cancer cell aggressiveness. Now in her fourth year, she is preparing to write her thesis once her paper is accepted for publication. She is very satisfied with the program and with her experience at Wistar. 

“Undertaking research at Wistar means you are surrounded by high-caliber scientists and mentors, you get to work on impactful, cutting-edge projects and have access to the latest technological support,” said Alicea.

After graduation she plans to pursue an academic career and one day hopes to establish her own lab. 

“Students who graduate from this program know the quality of their research, featured in high-impact publications, speaks for itself,” said Alicea. “Wistar’s reputation and being exposed to this research community also provide powerful assets to succeed.”