Published: April 27, 2016 By

Alumna Allison Cleary still has trouble believing she won a major prize for young scientists

Disbelief still lingers in Allison Cleary’s voice.

“It’s all just been amazing,” the University of Colorado Boulder alumna says on winning the grand prize in the 2015 SciLifeLab Prize for Young Scientists.

Cleary, who is completing a combined MD/PhD program at Pennsylvania State University College of Medicine, received the award, which includes a cash prize, a trip to Sweden and publication in an esteemed journal, for an essay she wrote about her dissertation research.

The essay about the physiology of breast cancer, “Teamwork: the tumor cell edition,” was published in a December edition of the prestigious journal Science. It drew high praise from the publication’s editors.

 Allison Cleary

Allison Cleary

“Allison Cleary’s work was a clear example of a young investigator who became fascinated with a theory that went against the dogma of the field and who designed elegant experiments to determine the reality of the science,” Barbara Jasny, deputy editor of Science, stated in a release.

Cleary always knew she wanted to be a physician, but research wasn’t on her mind until someone told her she needed laboratory experience to get into medical school.

So Cleary joined Distinguished Professor Leslie Leinwand’s lab in the Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology Department early in her undergraduate tenure at CU-Boulder.  This was her first foray into science and research. She was immediately hooked, and she  graduated from CU-Boulder with a BA in MCDB in 2006.

“I really fell in love with science,” she says.

“I really liked being able to ask questions that nobody knows the answer to and then try and find the answer. I thought that was such a cool thing to be able to do.”

Cleary gained three years of research experience working in the Leinwand Lab, investigating whether certain muscle proteins play a role in muscular dystrophy.

Her love for science and research provoked a sort of identity crisis. She had always wanted to attend medical school and become a doctor, but her exposure to research in the Leinwand Lab made her realize that she enjoyed science too much to give it up.

Initially, Cleary felt “a lot of anxiety” about choosing clinical training or research in graduate school. “But then I learned that there was such a thing as an MD/PhD program, where you could do both. Then, I was excited.”

“Excited” is not how most people would feel about a dual-degree program that takes nearly a decade to complete.

As an MD/PhD student, Cleary completed two years of medical school, followed by five years of research completing a PhD and now is finishing her final two years of clinical work.

And she didn’t get summers off. During her first two years of medical school, Cleary spent her summers trying out different labs, hoping to determine the best fit for her dissertation research.

I found cancer biology so unbelievably fascinating; I stay up at night thinking about cancer problems.”

Cleary thought she would join a muscle-biology lab, similar to Leinwand’s lab at CU-Boulder. But for her final lab rotation, she tried a cancer-biology lab.

Choosing that lab was another surprise, “because after working in Leslie’s lab and being so excited about the science of skeletal muscle, I really thought I wanted to continue studying skeletal muscle,” she says.

Instead, it seems, her specialty chose her.

In the cancer lab, she “just completely fell down the rabbit hole,” she says.

“I found cancer biology so unbelievably fascinating; I stay up at night thinking about cancer problems.”

One of these cancer-biology problems is figuring out how different populations of cells in a tumor talk to and interact with each other, and how that influences the way the overall tumor behaves. This became the focus of Cleary’s thesis work.

Tumors often contain distinct populations of cells. The leading theories posited that these populations compete against one another in a survival of the fittest. Cleary, however, found that these groups of cells work together to increase the survival of the tumor as a whole. She published these results in the prestigious scientific journal Nature.

About a year later, she saw an advertisement for an essay contest for young researchers and decided to apply. The prize, after all, includes $30,000, a trip to Stockholm to the Nobel Prize award ceremony and publication of the winning essay in Science, another globally renowned scientific journal.

Allison Cleary receives her award.

Allison Cleary receives her award.

“I certainly thought I had no chance at all for winning but that it was worth a try,” she says.

The SciLifeLab Prize is an international award established in 2013 by the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Science for Life Laboratory, a Swedish national center for biosciences. Four winners are chosen annually, one for each applicant category, including the grand-prize winner. Applicants must have completed their PhD programs within the previous two years. The program’s goal is to encourage young researchers as they begin their careers.

For Cleary, the experience has been unbelievable.

“I wrote an essay, and for whatever reason, they picked mine,” she says.

“Never in a million years would I have thought I’d be able to participate in the Nobel Prize award ceremony. That was once-in-a-lifetime incredible.”

Cleary graduates as a double-doctorate this May and begins a pathology residency at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston in July.

Roni Dengler is a writer for CU’s Science Buffs blog and a Ph.D. candidate in the Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology Department.