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PhD student studies cancer tumor cells; follows path of high school science teacher

By Kaylee Pugliese

UMass Chan Medical School Communications

November 29, 2021

Emmet Karner, a PhD student in the Morningside Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, is a member of the lab of Arthur Mercurio, PhD, professor of molecular, cell & cancer biology. Karner was inspired to go into the field by a passionate and influential science teacher.

Karner credits the late Larry Vanaria, at Maynard High School, for igniting his interest in science.

“My teacher was diagnosed with severe esophageal cancer and he died midway through teaching us,” Karner said, adding that Vanaria had continued teaching as long as he was able despite his failing health. “He was just always there because he loved teaching, he loved the subject matter. That was a huge inspiration.”

Karner graduated from UMass Amherst with a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry and molecular biology in 2017.

The Mercurio lab focuses on tumor microenvironment and tumor heterogeneity. Karner focuses on a newly discovered form of cell death called ferroptosis to understand how cells within a tumor can be more or less susceptible to this form of cell death.

“I’ve always liked the idea of science especially as it’s kind of a job of discovery,” Karner said. “It’s a job of investigation. It’s one where you get to flex your creative side and your intellectual side.”

Among the reasons he chose to attend UMass Chan Medical School were the opportunity to try out several areas during his first year of study and the high quality of research. He also fell in love with the Worcester area, specifically for affordability, which allows him to live in close proximity to his classmates.

“What we have here allows us to be in a really tight-knit group with a lot of common bonds and connections, and that I don’t think you see everywhere,” he said.

Those connections are formed with more than just his classmates; they’re with staff and faculty as well.

“There’s a deeper bond you can form with people in research where you can ask hard questions like, ‘How do you keep motivation and inspiration when things don’t go well?’ That’s something that you don’t always get; that’s a friend in research,” Karner said. “I think UMass Chan has a lot of those.”

The Student Spotlight series features UMass Chan Medical School students from the Morningside Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, Tan Chingfen Graduate School of Nursing and T.H. Chan School of Medicine. For more information about UMass Chan Medical School and how to apply, visit the Prospective Students page.

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