TAMPA — Statistics related to cancer can be grim.
But if Derek Park, a 23-year-old Marshall Scholar recipient who has spent the last year working in Moffitt Cancer Center's department of Integrated Mathematical Oncology has any say about it, they don't have to be.
In fact, statistics and mathematics may be the very tool to bring about unique solutions to a disease that has been thought of in terms of bleak numbers for centuries, he said.
Park, who was recently selected as one of 34 recipients of the scholarship, received his undergraduate degree from Yale University in 2013 in evolutionary biology, working for labs that asked "basic science" questions — things that dealt with gene sequencing and phylogenetics.
"I found it satisfying, but I wanted something that was more applied — something more germane to human disease and could have an impact on bettering people's lives," he said.
When he read about some of the cancer research coming out of Moffitt's Integrated Mathematical Oncology department, which has been featured in several publications including Newsweek and The Independent over the past year, he was intrigued.
Using math to model adaptive therapies to treat cancer patients sounded like a unique idea, he said.
"Cancer research, the way it's been traditionally done, has reached some plateaus," he said. "People are looking for new ways and solutions for looking at things. … We know that if a patient has XYZ, we know if they will respond or won't respond, but we don't know why. We're using these mathematical models to try to explain the why."
So Park emailed two of the lead researchers, Alexander Anderson and Robert Gatenby, and pitched a few ideas before deciding to move to Tampa, where he began working alongside the researchers in developing and testing models.
"Derek is a very special student indeed," Anderson said via email. "We are lucky he found IMO."
Moffitt, Park said, is unlike many of the labs he's worked with as part of academic institutions like Yale or even private labs.
Research at Moffitt, he said, goes through a "potent creative pipeline," where an idea can reach a tangible patient benefit very quickly.
When he and his colleagues develop a model, they can test it across the hall with wet lab researchers who can eventually test possible therapies on mice, and later in clinics. Park said the opportunity as a researcher to be able to interact directly with patients to see how particular therapies affect them is invaluable and one he will be hard-pressed to find elsewhere.
Park said he has been working closely with a breast oncologist, where oftentimes it's the patients' questions and concerns that shape the research. A patient, he said, may want to know if it's okay to delay chemotherapy to have a child.
"Is it dangerous?" he said. "Maybe for some women, but not other women. At this point, we really don't have that good of an idea and we're hoping we can use mathematical modeling with a lot of existing patient data that can shed some light onto those kinds of questions."
In October 2013, Park was informed he had been selected as a finalist for the Marshall Scholarship, offered to up to 40 students in the United States who have graduated within three years and received a 3.7 or higher GPA.
So he flew to Atlanta, where he faced a selection panel that asked pointed questions, asking him to defend his beliefs about why he believed mathematical modeling offered a unique approach to cancer research.
"Regardless of whether I won it or not, I was really glad to have gone through the process," Park said. "It really forces you to think about your life goals and how you want to go about approaching it."
Park will continue his doctoral studies in the field in Oxford University's department of zoology, starting in the fall. He plans to keep close ties to Moffitt, and Anderson will serve as one of his graduate advisers.
Mostly, Park said, it will be the patients he's met who remain undaunted that will continue to inspire him, such as one who asked if it was okay to run a triathlon while undergoing chemotherapy.
"You do see the tragedy, you do see suffering, but then you see when things work out — when a patient recovers or when a patient has their disease in remission. And that's really uplifting. It tells you as a researcher, you're on the right track."