June 15, 2021 – For UF student Mai Tanaka-Wakefield, 2021 kicked off with her receiving a prestigious award and earning the opportunity to advocate for change in cancer research and biomedical science across the nation.
As a fifth-year Ph.D. student in the College of Medicine Graduate Program in Biomedical Sciences, Tanaka-Wakefield was selected to participate in the American Association for Cancer Research, or AACR, Early-Career Hill Day in February, where she met virtually with members of congress to stress how important it is to invest in the future of cancer research. She also received the AACR Bristol Myers Squibb Scholar-in-Training Award, which is presented to those with high-quality abstracts and applications to support their attendance at the AACR annual meeting.
“I have very little background in science policy, but talking to members of congress wasn’t intimidating,” said Tanaka-Wakefield, 26. “They wanted to learn more about my research, and they wanted to know how they could help early researchers like me.”
Tanaka-Wakefield, who moved to the United States from Japan for her high school education and to “follow the American dream,” has developed a strong interest in how drugs used for cancer treatment are created. At the College of Medicine, her research focuses on developing novel therapeutic strategies to treat patients with advanced, metastatic cancers, taking into consideration the patient’s comfort.
As one of 22 early-career investigators participating in this year’s event, Tanaka-Wakefield met through Zoom with legislators and their staff to advocate for robust and sustainable funding for cancer research and biomedical sciences through the National Institutes of Health and the National Cancer Institute. Over the span of two days, she spoke with seven senators and representatives from Florida and Alabama, including Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott.
“This opportunity definitely gave me an invaluable understanding of how it’s not just bench-to-bedside, but also bench-to-bedside and all the other stakeholders, including political and regulatory agencies that support the mission of cancer research,” she said.
One of Tanaka-Wakefield’s favorite conversations was with Rep. Jerry Carl from Alabama.
“He was very engaging and wanted to learn about why we are asking for the funding increases and how it would impact us,” Tanaka-Wakefield said. “Funding for early-career scientists has been so difficult. It is important to invest in the field in general, but funding for someone like me is really important. Sustainable funding allows us to develop our research and transition to principal investigators.”
Tanaka-Wakefield has already accomplished much during her short career and has learned the value patience in science.
“Do not be afraid of failure,” she said. “I have applied to so many things, some things more than five times. It is OK to fail, but you have to learn from failures.”
Tanaka-Wakefield is passionate about looking at the bigger picture while learning to communicate her research effectively.
“At the end of the day, I want my research to mean something and to help people,” she said.