For the first time since its inception in 1977, the Simmons Center for Cancer Research (formerly known as the BYU Cancer Research Center) will be funding year-long cancer research fellowships thanks to several generous donors.

The Christine Bireley Oliver Fellowship was created in honor of cancer fighter Christine Bireley Oliver and her support of the search for a cure. Oliver succumbed to the disease in 2008, but her legacy continues as student researchers now take up the fight.  This one-year fellowship includes tuition, insurance, and a stipend, and is one of the most prestigious fellowships offered in both the College of Life Sciences and the College of Physical and Mathematical Sciences at BYU.

A similar year-long fellowship has been provided this year by Dr. Douglas Heiner, a medical doctor and philanthropist. During his professional career, Heiner practiced medicine, did research, and taught in several medical schools and hospitals around the country.  He loved helping doctors from foreign countries get necessary training.  Heiner has given freely of his time and resources to train promising students, and the Douglas Heiner Fellowship in Cancer Research is an extension of that vision.

The goal of these fellowships is to enable graduate students currently engaged in high-quality cancer research to someday become principal investigators.  Candidates must be nominated by their PhD dissertation advisors, have passed their qualifying exams, and be committed to careers in cancer research.  This year’s fellowship recipients, Evita Weagel and Courtney Banks, were announced to the public on September 25, 2015, at a Simmons Center for Cancer Research (SCCR) faculty dinner in The Skyroom Restaurant on BYU campus.

Year-long Fellows

Courtney Banks, left, and Evita Weagel, right, receiving their fellowships

Weagel, the 2015 Douglas Heiner Fellow, is a microbiology and molecular biology student working with Dr. Kim O’Neill.  Weagel is preparing for a career in teaching and researching cancer immunology. “I find cancer and the immune system fascinating,” says Weagel, whose interest in biology began in her sixth grade classroom in Peru. “Because the immune system can be activated to fight cancer,” she explains, “current cancer treatment approaches are leaning toward immunotherapy.”

Banks, the 2015 Christine Bireley Oliver Fellow, is a biochemistry student from Texas working with Dr. Joshua Andersen.  Banks is focusing her research on altered proteins in breast cancer cells.  She hopes to continue her cancer research at a medical school or in industry.  “I’m most excited about the time this fellowship allows me to have to focus on my research,” says Banks.

After their year of research, Banks and Weagel will each present their work in an SCCR seminar.  They will also have the opportunity to mentor other cancer research fellows during spring and summer terms. “We have a long road ahead,” says Weagel, “but our research can benefit so many patients down the road.”


By Jordan Wright,
Posted on November 9th, 2015