Celebrating 45 Years of Excellence: A Legacy of Training Cancer Researchers

Since its establishment in 1978, the Stanford Cancer Biology PhD Program has been dedicated to training the next generation of exceptional scientists who will significantly contribute to cancer research. As we commemorate the program’s 45th anniversary, we celebrate its unwavering commitment to providing students with rigorous training to discover novel approaches to prevent, detect, and treat cancer. 

By 1970, cancer had become the second leading cause of death in the United States and a significant concern for the American people. In 1971, President Richard Nixon signed the National Cancer Act into law. This groundbreaking legislation ignited the "war on cancer," driving remarkable progress in cancer research by substantially increasing federal funding and establishing the National Cancer Institute (NCI).

Building upon this momentum, Robert Kallman, PhD, of the Stanford Department of Radiation Oncology, responded to the call for action by applying for a T32 training grant from the NCI in 1978, establishing Stanford’s Cancer Biology PhD Program. Since 2010, the T32 grant and the program have been supported by the Stanford Cancer Institute (SCI). This consolidation has further strengthened the collaborative efforts and resources available to the program.

As we reflect on the past 45 years, we celebrate the achievements of the program’s graduates, who have gone on to make significant contributions to cancer research and patient care. Their discoveries have advanced our understanding of cancer biology, identified novel therapeutic targets, and influenced clinical practice. The program has trained hundreds of PhD and MD/PhD students, many of whom have had outstanding careers in academia, industry, and beyond. Some notable alumni include several faculty and SCI members, including George Fisher, MD, PhD, Calvin Kuo, MD, PhD, and Paul Khavari, MD, PhD.

"As a member of the inaugural graduating class," Fisher stated, "the Cancer Biology Program inspired me to seek a career in oncology. I still use the scientific thinking I learned from George Hahn's lab in caring for patients and designing clinical trials."

Presently, the program is co-led by Laura Attardi, PhD, the Catharine and Howard Avery Professor of the School of Medicine and professor of Radiation Oncology and Genetics, and Julien Sage, PhD, the Elaine and John Chambers professor of Pediatric Cancer and professor of Genetics. Adding female leadership was a significant step forward due to the program’s considerable number of female trainees and has enhanced diversity in leadership. For over 19 years, their unwavering dedication has been instrumental in shaping and fortifying the program.

The program offers a comprehensive and interdisciplinary curriculum and is the only PhD program at Stanford focused solely on cancer biology. Students have the opportunity to work with over 60 faculty members who are renowned experts in their respective fields. This diverse range of faculty ensures that students receive a well-rounded education and are exposed to cutting-edge research across multiple disciplines.

“Stanford has really amazing research opportunities for these students,” Attardi said. “Between our research labs and outstanding faculty, this rich and diverse program has much to offer.” 

Over the past four and a half decades, the program has been at the forefront of groundbreaking research, fostering innovation, and training exceptional scientists in cancer biology. The program’s emphasis on rigorous training sets the stage for students to excel in their research endeavors. The program offers comprehensive training encompassing research conduct, rigor, reproducibility, oral presentation, and grant writing skills. Through a combination of classroom instruction, hands-on laboratory experience, and mentorship from leading scientists, students develop a deep understanding of cancer biology and gain the critical thinking and analytical skills needed to drive meaningful discoveries. 

The Stanford Cancer Biology PhD Program takes pride in its role as a vital component of the SCI's mission to train the next generation of cancer researchers. By fostering an environment of collaboration, creativity, and scientific rigor, the program empowers students to explore novel research directions and push the boundaries of cancer knowledge.

“The program’s vision for the future is to integrate the exceptional technology focus that characterizes Stanford with cancer biology model systems to provide a powerful strategy to understand cancer biology with unprecedented depth. We aim to equip students with the skills to utilize technology effectively in understanding and managing cancer, paving the way for groundbreaking advancements in the field,” stated Attardi and Sage.

We celebrate the Stanford Cancer Biology PhD Program’s 45 years of remarkable achievements and pay tribute to the visionary faculty, talented students, and dedicated staff who have contributed to its success. With unwavering dedication and a commitment to excellence, the program will undoubtedly continue its legacy of driving scientific progress and making a lasting impact in the fight against cancer.

August 2023 by Sarah Pelta
Image courtesy of Laura Attardi