Routine of a Cancer Cell Biologist: Zachary Schafer

Author: Zachary Schafer, Brandi Wampler, and Joanne Fahey

Zachary Schafer is a family man whose job it is to fight cancer for a living. At Notre Dame, he leads a lab studying cancer metastasis, is the Coleman Foundation Associate Professor of Cancer Biology in the College of Science, and is affiliated with multiple centers/institutes on campus, including the Berthiaume Institute for Precision Health, the Boler-Parseghian Center for Rare and Neglected Diseases, and the Harper Cancer Research Institute.  He also serves as an Assistant Department Chair of Biological Sciences and is one of the faculty members who created a new series of introductory biology courses for undergraduates. 

Zach’s ties to the University go well beyond his roles as a professor and scientist. He and his wife, Veronica, met as Notre Dame students, and now they are raising their family in the community. Read, in his own words, about Zach’s daily routine, the importance he places on balancing both his work and home life, the joy he gets from supporting his students, and more.

Morning in Motion

The Schafer household is in constant motion from early in the morning until late in the evening. As a father of five very active kids, there is never any shortage of things to do! I typically begin the day saying good morning to each of the kids before I shower and get ready. My wife, Veronica (‘01), is busy getting the kids breakfast and ready for school. I often leave the house at 7:00 a.m. to drop my daughters – Claire and Ava – off at elementary school. I’ll then drive down to the high school to drop off my oldest son – Noah. Shortly afterwards, Veronica will take Ethan to middle school and three-year old Simon will ride along with them. 

Taking a break in Colorado.
Taking a break in Colorado.

Stop at Starbucks

After dropping off the kids, it’s time to get some caffeine. Despite not drinking coffee until the birth of my fourth child, I am now a full-blown Starbucks addict and am regularly putting in my mobile order as I am about to drive to campus. After my Starbucks stop, I typically arrive on campus between 8:00 and 9:00 a.m. 

Schafer on his Starbucks run.
Schafer on his Starbucks run.
 

The Endeavor of Email

The first thing I do when I sit down at my desk is get caught up on my email. It’s very easy to get behind on it, and I do my best to reply to any messages I receive within 24 hours. This is an aspirational goal and full disclosure, I don’t always meet it. But endeavoring to get caught up is always the first thing on my agenda. Oftentimes, this involves communicating with research collaborators, indicating availability for meetings, or responding to student questions from class.

Catching up with emails
Catching up with emails

Determining the Day

One of the greatest things about being a cancer cell biologist is that no two days are alike! There are many facets to my job and, depending on the day, the rhythm and pacing can vary tremendously. My day is 100 percent governed by my Google Calendar, which I keep open on my computer at all times. It’s also synced to my phone so regardless of where I am, I can look at my phone to tell me where I need to be and when I need to be there.

The Trouble with Time 

I’ll be honest—I struggle with time management. I have gotten better over time, but it’s an ongoing and perpetual challenge for me. Part of the problem is that my job affords me opportunities to be a part of all sorts of exciting things. So the challenge is remembering to say “no” sometimes and also to remember that spreading myself too thin can negatively impact all of my ongoing activities. 

If anyone has advice for me on this issue, feel free to stop by my office. :)

From Alumnus to Assistant Department Chair

My main work responsibilities involve running my research lab and classroom teaching. I also do a fair bit of work for my department, Biological Sciences, and am currently serving as an Assistant Department Chair. In this role, I oversee our efforts in undergraduate education. As an alumnus ('01) of the department where I now work, this role has been incredibly rewarding. I have been able to work on curriculum reform with faculty colleagues, assist our department chair in coordinating teaching assignments/schedules, and interface with undergraduate student leaders

Collaborating with colleagues.
Collaborating with colleagues.

Inside the Office

A review of my Google Calendar reveals a diversity of different research activities that take place in blocks of time throughout the day. This often means meeting with students to discuss recent results, interpret data, or troubleshoot experimental approaches. Science is inherently collaborative and these scientific discussions with lab members about brand new data are frequently the highlight of my day. The whole lab meets together every Thursday morning to discuss progress on our projects or to think about newly published articles that are relevant to our work. 

A Look in the Lab

It has been a LONG time since I have worked at the bench doing experiments (more on how I spend my days below!). Frankly, I often wonder if I would still be any good at conducting experiments myself! The lab is a hub of activity with members working in the hood culturing cells, at the bench running gels, or at the microscope doing imaging analysis. You can find me in my office right around the corner. 

What’s the Research?

My research lab is located in the Galvin Life Science Center on Library Quad, and is focused on understanding how cancer cells survive during metastasis. Metastasis is the process by which cancer cells spread from the site of a primary tumor to somewhere else in the body. It’s responsible for over 90 percent of cancer deaths, so the idea is that new knowledge in this area could be leveraged to help kill metastatic cancer cells. There are currently 13 people who work in my lab and most are Notre Dame students (five are graduate students and seven are undergraduate students). We are cell biologists, so most of our experiments involve growing cells in culture and testing how manipulating different genes or pathways impact cell behavior. 

Conferring with 2021 Ph.D. graduate Jordan Cockfield in the lab.
Conferring with 2021 Ph.D. graduate Jordan Cockfield in the lab.

Communicating Discoveries

I spend quite a bit of my time on writing. Good written communication is important, and I am always in the process of writing or editing manuscripts we intend to submit for publication or drafting grant proposals to compete for funding to support the lab. 

Any time work from our lab is published is a proud moment. Two recent papers come to mind: a 2018 paper in Nature Cell Biology and a 2021 paper in Cell Reports. The reason these two stand out for me is the large number of Notre Dame students who are co-authors on them. Both papers were led by uber-talented graduate students and have numerous undergraduate student authors. These were also tremendously collaborative studies where we worked with fantastic colleagues at Duke, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, Northwestern, and UT Southwestern Medical Center. 

Finding Research Sustainability

I’m really proud that we just secured a five year grant from the National Cancer Institute that provides stable funding for the lab until 2026. The quest for funds is an ongoing and challenging part of a scientist’s job, and I’m grateful for us to have this kind of support for the next several years. 

In the Scientific Community

I regularly attend research seminars, participate as a dissertation committee member for graduate students from other labs, and order lab supplies and equipment. I am also involved in a number of additional research-related activities in the scientific community, such as serving as a scientific reviewer for manuscripts submitted for publication or reading and evaluating grant proposals under consideration for funding. I am a long-time member of a Peer Review Committee for the American Cancer Society, and I am excited to begin work as the Co-Chair of the Metastasis and Microenvironment Committee in January of 2022.

Why Notre Dame

Prior to joining the Notre Dame faculty in 2009, I completed my graduate and postdoctoral research training in large medical centers. I am grateful for the outstanding training I received, but I also never saw myself being a professor at a large medical center. I really wanted to be at a place where the educational mission is a big part of day-to-day life. It’s why I love being at Notre Dame so much. I can do top-flight research with amazing colleagues and students while simultaneously being deeply involved in classroom teaching. 

Schafer's diplomas hang in his office.
Schafer's diplomas hang in his office.

Charting a New Course

In the fall semester, I teach as part of the new introductory biology sequence that is now in its fourth year. The class is called "Big Questions" and I teach it alongside seven other biologists who also run their own laboratories. The idea is for each of us to bring elements of our own research programs into the classroom to teach basic biological concepts. I typically have about 75 students in the classroom with me and our classes focus heavily on discussion-based problem solving. I always leave class energized by interactions with the students. 

Committed to students.
Committed to students.

Best Part of the Job

This one’s easy: working with amazing students. Recently, one of my graduate students, Jordan Cockfield, defended her dissertation and became the eighth Ph.D. student to graduate from my lab. There is no better moment in my professional life than introducing one of my graduate students at their dissertation defense. 

Watching someone pour themselves into the challenges of scientific research over a number of years to then reach this major milestone? It’s incredibly inspiring and always leaves me feeling grateful for having this job. It’s also bittersweet in that it means that someone who I have worked with and mentored for a number of years will leave the lab. But there is also tremendous excitement as these newly minted PhDs move on to bigger and better things.  

Wrapping Up the Day

I typically end up getting back home around 6:00 p.m. Sometimes, I swing back by the high school to pick Noah up from cross country practice, but the kids are all usually home by the time I walk in the door. We make an effort to eat dinner as a family every night, even if it ends up being short and quick due to everyone’s busy schedule. The older kids are always working on homework and the younger kids are often playing together until just before bed time. One of our biggest challenges is that the older kids all like to play with their 3-year-old brother Simon and this invariably gets him pretty wound up at a time where we would prefer he get ready for bed.

Getting ready to head home for the night.
Getting ready to head home for the night.

It Takes Two

Veronica and I have a separate Google Calendar for kid activities, which is linked to our phones. Veronica and I met in college as Notre Dame students, got engaged at the Grotto, and got married at the Basilica. Right now, she is loving being a stay-at-home mom. She is consistently and perpetually amazing and she brings tremendous stability to our day-to-day routine. She is also a supremely talented pediatric occupational therapist, so she will likely head back to work at some point after Simon starts school. She has a passion for working with children who have developmental disabilities. 

Spending time at the Indiana Dunes National Park.
Spending time at the Warren Dunes State Park.

Be Intentional with Balance

As my family has grown in size and kids have gotten older, there are evolving challenges to this balance. There is no question that you don’t become a scientist because you want to have an easy, low key job. In fact, doing good science inevitably means your work reveals additional questions. So I am never “done” or “caught up” with work. 

That being said, I think it is important to intentionally tend to the “life” or “non-work” part of this equation. I don’t think there is a perfect way to do this and what each person needs (e.g. family, friends, exercise, rest, etc.) may be different. But I think you have to adopt a mentality where you understand that being happy in your “non-work” life actually enables success in your “work” life. If you don’t take the time to allow your brain to recharge, to connect with the people you love the most, or to pursue non-science interests, how will you be able to focus on doing the best in your work life? It’s a mentality that I live by and one that I actively encourage.

The Schafer Family poses for a photo.
The Schafer Family poses for a photo (Peter Thurin Photography).

 

Family Favorites

Weekends are family time for me. I typically make sure to be intentional about ignoring work-related issues on Saturday so I can be fully present with my wife and kids. I do sometimes work on Sundays in order to prepare for the upcoming week, but try to protect as much of my time on Sunday for family as well. Normal weekend activities for the Schafer household might include things like a trip to Michiana Soccer Association Park for soccer games, attending a cross country race at Ox Bow Park, or heading to campus for an ND football game.

We are parishioners at St. Pius X Catholic Church where we typically attend 10:00 a.m. Mass. My whole family will often go to my mom and dad’s house for dinner on Sunday night so the kids can get some quality time with Nana and Papa. My parents moved to the South Bend area about five years ago and my in-laws are also planning to relocate to Michiana in early 2022.

Our favorite fall family activity is going to the apple orchard, and we recently found a great one that coincidentally is also somewhat of a namesake. 

Schafer Family Apple Orchard 2021
Apple picking with the family.

(Almost) Never Misses a Game

We like to take the whole crew to campus to watch the band; first the Bond Hall concert and later when they march to the stadium. My dad, my father-in-law, and I never miss games and most times one of the kids will use our fourth ticket. This is my 13th year on the faculty, and I am proud to say that I have missed a grand total of one home football game since 2009. 

Schafer At The Football
Cheering on the Irish with family

 

Best Part of All

Watching Noah race in the Northern Indiana Conference cross country meet, Ethan compete at Spell Bowl or in a reading competition, Claire and Ava play soccer or do gymnastics – these are my favorite moments. For Simon, the joy he gets out of small things like getting his hair cut or going to the dentist for the first time – it’s palpable. It is difficult to explain if you are not a parent, but the pride, joy, and love that comes with being a Dad is something I always try to savor and relish.

Proud dad!
Proud dad!

This story is a part of the “Routine of a Researcher'' story series from Notre Dame Research, which highlights faculty at the University of Notre Dame and their day-to-day activities on and off-campus. The goal is to showcase both the nitty-gritty of a faculty member’s unique schedule and provide supportive examples of how they balance the many competing priorities of work and personal needs. If you are a Notre Dame faculty member who is interested in being featured, please contact Joanne D. Fahey, Director of Research Communications, at fahey.17@nd.edu.