Postdoc Susan Legget awarded fellowship to study aggressive cancer

Written by
Tom Garlinghouse, Chemical and Biological Engineering
Jan. 29, 2021

Susan Leggett, a postdoctoral research associate in chemical and biological engineering, has received a two-year fellowship from the New Jersey Alliance for Clinical and Translational Science (NJ ACTS).

The fellowship allows her to develop her skills as a translational scientist and advance her biomedical research. The award provides a postdoctoral salary, training related funds, and tuition support for one year as she pursues innovative breast cancer research. It also connects Leggett with a robust mentorship program to guide her career choices and connect her with other translational researchers.

Specifically, Leggett received what is called the TL1 award, a training grant which is offered annually to a small cohort of predoctoral and postdoctoral applicants competitively selected from Princeton University, Rutgers University and the New Jersey Institute of Technology. Part of a larger $29 million Clinical and Translational Science award from the National Institute of Health (NIH), the fellowship program is designed to support and train students seeking a practical introduction to clinical and translational research.

Translational science research bridges the gap between the discovery of new medical treatments and the logistics involved in developing ways of “translating” those breakthroughs into practical improvements that will benefit patients.

“This award will enable Susan to dive more deeply into the issues associated with triple-negative breast cancer, which varies greatly from patient to patient and is especially challenging to treat,” said Celeste Nelson, the Wilke Family Professor in Bioengineering at Princeton University and Leggett’s academic advisor.

Leggett has been investigating this cancer type by examining a process in which epithelial cells, covering nearly all body surfaces, are converted into mesenchymal cells, critical for development and tissue repair. Mesenchymal cells have an increased migration and invasion capacity, and the activation of this conversion process during cancer progression has detrimental consequences, Leggett said. It's one means by which cancer cells may spread throughout the body,  into the blood stream and the lymphatic system and to other body organs to form metastases.

“We’re trying to understand how cancer cell diversity that results from [epithelial-mesenchymal transition] may drive malignant progression so that we can better understand it and potentially target it,” said Leggett.

Leggett began her fellowship in the fall of 2020. 

But the award is not simply a disbursement of funds.

"I don’t just get funding," Legget said. "I actually get a team of people who are interested in what I want to do and are invested in my career development.”

This team will assist Leggett over the duration of her fellowship through experiential learning opportunities outside of her lab and with her career goals to become a skilled translational scientist.

“Through the fellowship program, we introduced Susan to physician scientist Dr. Shridar Ganesan at the Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey,” said Daniel Notterman, who leads Princeton’s role in NJ ACTS and is a senior research scholar and a lecturer with the rank of professor in molecular biology, and a practicing physician. “Dr. Ganesan has a broad and deep understanding of the type of aggressive cancer Susan is studying, and he actively treats patients with the disease, which will provide an invaluable perspective for Susan.”

Before joining Professor Nelson's lab, Legget earned her Ph.D. in pathobiology from Brown University.