Doctoral student Elizabeth Harper awarded prestigious NIH fellow transition award

Author: Deanna Csomo McCool

Elizabeth Harper, a fourth-year doctoral student in the Integrated Biomedical Sciences program at the University of Notre Dame, has been awarded a grant from the National Institute on Aging that will fund the completion of her doctorate and up to four years of postdoctoral research.

Elizabeth Harper
Elizabeth Harper

Harper studies ovarian cancer metastasis in the laboratory of M. Sharon Stack, the Ann F. Dunne and Elizabeth Riley Director of Harper Cancer Research Institute, and Kleiderer-Pezold Professor of Chemistry & Biochemistry. The relatively new grant, called the Predoctoral to Postdoctoral Fellow Transition Award (F99/K00), funds outstanding doctoral candidates, and Harper has been the first student at Notre Dame to have been awarded one. The National Institute of Aging is a part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

“I’m absolutely honored to have received this,” said Harper, who is not related to Mike and Josie Harper, benefactors of the Harper Cancer Research Institute. “When Sharon suggested that I apply for the grant, it felt impossible, but it was such a learning experience and amazing that I received it.”

Harper is studying why ovarian cancer spreads more easily in older women than it does in younger women, making older women more likely to die.

She is researching the tumor microenvironment as a whole, but her most recent work, to be published soon, examines the role collagen plays in metastasis. Because external signs of collagen loss are visible on aging skin, creating wrinkles, Harper hypothesized that changes in collagen could hasten metastasis and might be happening in the omentum, an organ in the peritoneal cavity to which ovarian cancer often spreads. The fatty tissue hangs like a curtain from the stomach and wraps around the intestines.

“Elizabeth’s research project is innovative and compelling, as she uses a multi-disciplinary approach to examine the impact of age on metastatic success.  She is charting new territory at the interface of cancer, aging and immunology.  Receipt of this award will enable her to obtain a highly competitive post-doctoral position at the completion of her PhD training.  We hope this is the first of many successful F99/K00 awards to graduate students at Notre Dame.”

Though Harper, who is from South Bend, earned the award at Notre Dame, the NIH grant is portable and does not require that she continue her postdoctoral education at the University.

She expects her latest research will be published in Fall 2020.

Originally published by Deanna Csomo McCool at science.nd.edu on July 30, 2020.