Undergraduate Researchers Tackle Cancer

by Evan Elliot, USF News

At many universities, only graduate students do research. At USF, undergraduate students do research, too. Meet three of them.

Aarya Mishra

Aarya Mishra ’24 has worked in the research lab of Professor Christina Tzagarakis-Foster since fall 2022. Mishra works with DAX1, a nuclear hormone receptor.

“In the cancer that I’m investigating now, adrenal cortical cancer, DAX1 is over-expressed, which means that there are higher levels than usual,” she said. “So my question is: If we know that DAX1 is over-expressed in this particular cancer, what happens if I take it out? Or what happens if I mute it?”

Mishra, a biology major who is minoring in neuroscience, chemistry, and psychology, said she aims to be a medical doctor one day, but first she’s off to earn a master’s degree in physiological science at UCLA.

“I really appreciate the importance of research in bettering patient lives,” she said. “My main research interest is endocrinology, like what I’m doing right now."

Isabella Escutia

Isabella Escutia ’25, a chemistry major, worked all of last year with Herman Nikolayevskiy, assistant professor of chemistry, researching hormones and enzymes and their potential role in anticancer chemotherapies.

“Enzymes are kind of like bacteria. Some are good and some are harmful, and sometimes even the good ones can malfunction and do more harm than good,” Escutia said. She worked with kojic acid, researching ways to make it more effective at blocking tyrosine, a hormone that produces melanin — and that sometimes can overproduce melanin.

Escutia’s research was more about the process than the product, she said. “When I was writing my research paper, my professor and I spoke a lot about how my paper was more of a methods development paper, just because right now we’re trying to find a route to make this research work — a method or procedure that can be followed and replicated to move the research forward."

Corrina Smith

Corrina Smith ’24 is a process chemist at Erasca in South San Francisco. Her mission: erase cancer.

“You could think of me as a recipe tester,” Smith said. “Say you get this recipe for chocolate chip cookies. When you follow this recipe, some of the cookies actually don’t have chocolate chips in them. It’s my job to refine that recipe and try to get more cookies without chocolate chips in them. The chips are impurities produced during drug manufacturing, and we want to learn how they happen and how to avoid them.”

Smith, a chemistry major, worked full-time as an intern at Erasca last summer. Now she works there two afternoons a week, working to shut down the RAS/MAPK pathway, a pathway in the body in which cancer cells travel.

Smith uses her classes to understand the science behind her work. “When I took a biochemistry class with Dr. Stamenov, it was like, Oh! At work I didn’t really understand what was going on, biologically, so that class opened my eyes.”

Smith says she hopes to work in the biotech industry and “hopefully stay within process chemistry, because from my internship and current work, I really like that. And then work for a year or two and then go to grad school. I want to stay in California because there’s so many biotech companies in San Francisco and in San Diego.”