The Undergraduate: Madhushree Zope

Biochemistry senior and Texas 4000 ride participant. Interviewed by Vivian Abagiu.

 

Credit: Wyatt McSpadden

Last summer you rode from Austin to Alaska as part of the Texas 4000, a charity bike ride to fight cancer. Tell us about that experience. 

Going into the ride I didn’t realize how impactful my story would be to others. I’ve been cancer-free since January 2009 and have had a passion for research since. Texas 4000 gave me the opportunity to inspire others to believe in that same cause, raise money for cancer research and provide a platform for riders and communities across North America to talk about their experiences with cancer. 

In Vancouver, a woman who had fought leukemia came up to me after I had presented my story. She teared up and mentioned having dreamt of a cancer vaccine to make therapy more bearable. ‘I know exactly how you feel. I’ve been there. That is what I’m trying to do with my work,’ I said. It was a very humbling experience to share my story. It gave me a sense of closure that I had never really had coming out of chemo. Getting on the bike every day, going through crazy mountain passes or heat or headwinds, definitely inspires people to keep hoping and believing that investing in cancer research will one day be fruitful. 

What sparked your passion to fight cancer through research?

My cancer diagnosis at the age of 13 and subsequent chemotherapy led to my aspirations to become a doctor and develop new therapies. My worst memory of going through chemotherapy was the confinement. Spending months within glass walls, in sterile environments and away from family and friends, decreases your physical functionality and quality of life. I want to develop a cancer therapy that targets cancer cells and spares the healthy cells in the body – a new generation of cancer medicine that doesn’t restrict patients’ lifestyles and is more effective. 

Did coming to UT Austin shape your trajectory? 

UT is unique in that there is so much research going on that’s easily accessible to undergraduates. It’s that kind of versatility and diversity – with all the faculty who have interests in medical research and are willing to take on undergraduate students – that I think was the kick-starter for my journey into cancer research. 

What are your plans after graduation?

I’m in the process of applying to medical school and currently working on trying to find antigens from which to build immunotherapies for leukemia and lymphoma at the MD Anderson Cancer Center. There are some exciting leads. We’ve made our own killer T cells and antibodies, and we’ve shown that we’re able to get rid of the multiple myeloma – at least in a petri dish. It’s definitely a promising avenue, but there’s a lot of work that needs to be done before it goes into patients.

Read about a College of Natural Sciences alum who is driving a new revolution in cancer therapy at MD Anderson, Dr. James Allison.