Hester Fellowship recipients look toward career in pediatrics

By Brian Hartz

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Recipients of the Indiana University Melvin and Bren Simon Cancer Center’s Merilyn Hester Fellowship for the 2015-16 academic year are Derek Logsdon and Stefan Tarnawsky, both IU School of Medicine students.

Logsdon, 29, said he is “ecstatic” to win the Hester Fellowship. “I went straight to my mentor’s office to share the news. It was a very exciting day for me. It’s certainly a boon to my morale.” Logsdon’s mentor is Mark Kelley, Ph.D., the Betty and Earl Herr Professor of Pediatric Oncology Research and the cancer center’s associate director of basic science research. His co-mentors are Michael Vasko, Ph.D., former chair of pharmacology and toxicology and the Paul Stark Professor of Pharmacology, and professor of anesthesia and of medicine, and Melissa Fishel, Ph.D., an associate research professor of pediatrics.

Hailing from Springfield, Mo., Logsdon received his bachelor’s degree from Evangel University, where he majored in biology and minored in chemistry and biblical studies. He spent four years working in a hematology lab before coming to IUSM in 2012 to pursue a doctorate in pharmacology with a minor in cancer biology. Logsdon has been published in Missouri Medicine and the Journal of Biological Chemistry and expects to complete his degree program in the fall of 2017.

At IUSM, Logsdon is studying APE1, a DNA repair enzyme and how it responds to platinum-based chemotherapeutic agents used to treat pediatric solid tumors.

Logsdon says he’s motivated to make pediatric oncology – particularly the signaling pathways that affect how cancers develop and progress – the research focus of his career because several of his family members are cancer survivors. In the personal statement he submitted with his application for the Hester Scholarship, Logsdon says those loved ones “lived with the debilitating side effects of chemotherapy for many years.” But he has another, perhaps even more motivating, reason for his choice of career: He and his wife, Amber, a lawyer who works in the office of the Indiana Attorney General, are expecting their first child in October.

“I want to study cancer and the effects of cancer treatment to improve survival and quality of life for future generations,” he wrote. Logsdon is not sure whether he’ll remain in Indianapolis after graduation. His wife loves her job, he says, adding that “I would not still be in grad school if not for her.”

“I want to study cancer and the effects of cancer treatment to improve survival and quality of life for future generations.”

Derek Logsdon

Tarnawskyalso is unsure of the specifics of his post-IUSM plans, but he has a crystal-clear career goal. After finishing his M.D. /Ph.D. in the spring of 2019, he’ll begin residency training, preferably in pediatrics. After that, he wants to become a tenured physician-scientist at a large academic hospital and own an independently funded laboratory with a translational research focus on pediatric hematology and oncology. The 26-year-old Toronto native sees himself becoming a physician-scientist, splitting his time between research, clinical practice and teaching.

His motivation for his professional choices are highly personal: As an infant, Tarnawsky was diagnosed with the nerve cell cancer known as neuroblastoma.

“My experience with neuroblastoma taught me first-hand the value of a strong and enduring physician-patient relationship,” he said. “I was very fortunate to have been under the care of Dr. Helen Chan, a physician at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children, who orchestrated my treatment and with whom I formed a strong mentee-mentor relationship over 18 years of biannual appointments.  These meetings were truly formative as I experienced Dr. Chan’s ability to calm me and relieve my family’s anxiety. As I witnessed the value of the physician-patient relationship, I became resolved to pursue a career in pediatric hematology/oncology and impact future families in the same way that she did mine.”

“As I witnessed the value of the physician-patient relationship, I became resolved to pursue a career in pediatric hematology/oncology and impact future families in the same way that she did mine.”
Stefan Tarnawsky

Tarnawsky described his reaction to winning the Hester Fellowship as “pure elation” and says it will help him “forge the research and clinical connections” necessary to pursue his dream.

Specifically, Tarnawsky plans to use the funds from the award to attend national and international meetings. “The presentations and conversations at these meetings are invaluable,” he said. What he learns in his travels, he added, will broaden his knowledge of his primary research interest in juvenile myelomonocytic leukemia, a blood cancer that afflicts young children. 

Tarnawsky’s undergraduate years were spent at the University of Toronto, where he majored in biochemistry. It was there, in his junior year, that his interest in scientific research blossomed. He said he has been fortunate enough to help write four research articles and has won travel awards to meetings, including the International Symposium on JMML, the American Society of Hematology, and the National Institutes of Health Workshop on Macrophage Development.

At IUSM, he conducts research in the lab of Mervin Yoder, M.D., associate dean for entrepreneurial research, the Richard and Pauline Klingler Professor of Pediatrics and director of the Herman B Wells Center for Pediatric Research. Tarnawsky cites the Wells Center as a “major incentive” that influenced his decision to enroll at IUSM.

“Its emphasis on hematopoietic development and stem cell biology closely matched my interests,” he said. “The collaborative nature of research at IUSM was also very appealing. It assured me I would have tremendous support throughout my training, not just from my primary mentor, but also from other researchers who would be willing to invest time and resources into my training.”

“After I complete my studies at IU, I want to work in a collaborative, tight-knit academic setting,” Tarnawsky adds. “The Herman B Wells Center is a prime example of such an environment. I hope to discover others as I near the end of my M.D./Ph.D. training.”

The Hester FellowshipThe Merilyn Hester Fellowship was established with memorial donations upon Hester’s death in 2004. It was originally held and administered by the Walther Cancer Foundation; the foundation gifted the fund to the IU Simon Cancer Center in 2009. The scholarship was established to support M.D., Ph.D., or M.D. /Ph.D. students whose research or clinical interests relate to pediatric oncology or pediatric hematology. Applicants for the award can receive a maximum of $8,000 for tuition, stipend, travel expenses and lab equipment. The selection committee bases their decision on academic achievements, potential for success, outstanding character and professional goals.