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Collaboration with healthcare system allows Saint Mary’s student to take part in cancer research

September 19, 2022

Biology Pre-PA Assistant Studies UG Stories

Being able to say you completed a summer internship at Gundersen Health System Kabara Cancer Research Institute is great for a résumé, but it was only a side benefit.

More importantly, for Saint Mary’s senior Kaydi Breeser, a pre-physician assistant studies major from Caledonia, it solidified her medical career aspirations — and it was an opportunity to play a small role in the fight against cancer.

Breeser was a Saint Mary’s University Fellow at Gundersen, an academic collaboration brought about through 1958 alumnus Dr. Jon Kabara (now deceased) and his wife Betty, founders of the Kabara Cancer Research Institute in La Crosse, Wis.

Breeser spent her summer learning how to use the flow cytometer, making samples, and assisting in an experiment aimed at fighting ovarian cancer.

“This experience was amazing, because research is extremely needed,” Breeser said. “It’s really rewarding to play even a small role and hope that someday it helps research go further.”

Karen Cowden Dahl, Ph.D., a senior research scientist, has headed the institute’s ovarian cancer research for three years. As her mother died of cancer when she was a child, her work takes on added meaning.

She said not much progress has been made in ovarian cancer, a devastating disease with only a 46 percent survival rate. Because there’s no screening, she said the vast percentage of women don’t know they have the disease until it has progressed beyond hope for a cure.

“One of our biggest challenges is how to understand the cells that start tumors,” she said. “Cancer starts from one cell that goes crazy, the initiator cell. We know they exist but need to know more. If we know more about them, we can help get rid of them. One of the problems with ovarian cancer is that these cancer cells survive chemotherapy and can start new tumors. If we understand them, we can target drugs at the cells not killed by chemotherapy. We are doing a number of tests to define them better.”

Breeser hopes to become a physician assistant, and although she doesn’t plan to further a career in research, the lessons she learned in a real-life lab setting were invaluable.

“It verifies how much I enjoy the sciences and biology, and I know I’m heading in the right direction,” she said.

It also taught her valuable skills about communication.

“Everyone has heard from someone who has had bad experiences at doctor appointments, and it’s usually because they feel like the physicians aren’t paying enough attention,” she said. “I want to be a PA who is there for my patients and makes them feel heard, and I look forward to connecting with every patient.”

Cowden Dahl agrees that undergraduate research is one of the best things a student can do. “It solidifies their career path, and most importantly develops those critical thinking skills.”

She said working with students is rewarding and energizing. “Students are fantastic. They come in with enthusiasm, wanting to learn, wanting to make a difference,” she said. “I’ve been very pleased with Saint Mary’s students. They’ve been fantastic, especially Kaydi, who has worked hard from Day One, reading things that helped her understand her project. All of her classwork and experience paid off and she understood and took her project and ran with it.”

Breeser credits her classes and professors for helping to prepare her. “Saint Mary’s has some of the best professors I could imagine,” she said. “I’ve never had a professor I didn’t like. They’re excited and passionate about what they’re teaching and always available to help you.”

Breeser is also grateful she had the opportunity to meet with Betty Kabara, who has herself battled cancer and whose philanthropic work and connections made her internship possible. “This position is very important to her, and she wants to make sure we are getting the most out of it as possible, so being chosen to do this was exciting, and I know that what I’m doing is going to a bigger purpose and will further Betty’s work.”