Brooke McGirr, a rising third-year Ph.D. student in the Department of Chemical Engineering at the University of Virginia School of Engineering, has received a 2019 National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship that will support her research on treatments for cancer of the pancreas.

McGirr, whose second year as a graduate student was supported by a National Institutes of Health Cancer Training Grant, works in Associate Professor Matt Lazzara’s Cell Signaling Engineering Lab. Lazzara describes her as an ideal candidate for the prestigious fellowship, which provides financial flexibility for students to pursue their own research questions and projects.

“I’m so happy for her that the review committee saw that,” Lazzara said. “NSF proposals are rated on two criteria — intellectual merit and broader societal impacts. Brooke’s proposal, her thesis project, and her approach to research have those qualities in spades.”

The highly competitive fellowship program supports outstanding graduate students in National Science Foundation-supported disciplines who are pursuing research-based master’s and Ph.D. degrees.

Recipients are selected for their potential contributions to research, teaching and innovations in science and engineering, according to the website, which notes that, “These individuals are crucial to maintaining and advancing the nation’s technological infrastructure and national security as well as contributing to the economic well-being of society at large.” In its almost 70-year history, 42 fellows have become Nobel Prize winners, including Google co-founder Sergey Brin and “Freakonomics” co-author Steven Levitt.

Headshot of Brooke McGirr

"The most important thing to me is being honored that people believe in me as a researcher and that I have the potential to make a big impact with the work I am doing."

Brooke McGirr, NSF Graduate Research Fellow

McGirr is conducting her project, “The role of the tumor microenvironment in driving epithelial-mesenchymal transition in pancreatic cancer,” under Lazzara’s mentorship as part of her dissertation research.

“I am studying how the limited access to oxygen within a tumor and the presence of other cell types are able to drive the neighboring cancer cells to undergo epithelial-mesenchymal transition, which leads to metastasis and chemoresistance,” McGirr said. “By understanding how these factors drive epithelial-mesenchymal transition, we can identify potential druggable targets.”

The goal is to develop more-effective treatments for pancreatic cancer, one of the leading causes of cancer-related deaths. In most cases, the disease has already metastasized by the time of diagnosis, and the tumor cells are highly resistant to available chemotherapies, she said.

McGirr, who earned her B.S. in chemical engineering with a biomolecular concentration and minor in biotechnology from North Carolina State University, was naturally drawn to Lazzara’s lab when she came to UVA.

“I have always been driven to pursue a field that can help a lot of people,” she said. “The medical research we conduct in Prof. Lazzara’s lab has the potential to give people hope and a better life through novel therapies. I also wanted to be on his team because he works at the intersection of quantitative problem-solving and complex challenges in cancer biology.”

McGirr’s fellowship, which provides $34,000 per 12-month fellowship year for three years, plus a tuition allowance, comes at a good time for the lab.

“The impact for our research will be substantial,” he said. “Our lab has just been awarded a new National Institutes of Health U01 grant from the National Cancer Institute to use systems biology approaches for the rational development of combination therapy for pancreas cancer. Brooke’s project is nicely aligned with those goals and her fellowship will augment this new project in our lab.”

In addition to supporting McGirr’s research, the Graduate Research Fellowship Program opens other doors as well, including access to professional networks and the prestige that comes with being a fellow.

“The most important thing to me, though, is being honored that people believe in me as a researcher and that I have the potential to make a big impact with the work I am doing,” she said.

McGirr is also grateful to have found a home at UVA Engineering, where opportunities to collaborate across Grounds, including with several labs at the medical school, have enhanced her research and provided training she might not otherwise have had. Those experiences helped her eligibility. Likewise, she said, Lazzara has been an excellent mentor whose support was instrumental in her successful fellowship application.