Fresh Faces, New Energy: Transforming Research at Wilmot

Oct. 20, 2020

Some of them are homegrown; others hail from as far away as the crowded streets of India and the island of Corsica in the Mediterranean Sea. All of them, incredibly talented, grabbed an opportunity at the University of Rochester, entering positions as independent investigators on a tenure track.

Whatever their roots, they are in Rochester now as part of a team that pledges to defeat cancer.

In recent years, leadership at the Wilmot Cancer Institute went on a recruitment spree to draw young talent from top institutions around the world and establish a new generation of wunderkinds. They enlisted bright minds from MIT and Harvard in the Northeast, Stanford and Utah out West, and many places in between. They built an extraordinary class of junior faculty with interests and expertise to complement Wilmot’s strengths. The investigators — nearly all of them are Millennials — also brought the latest skills in parsing technology, big data, genomics and bioinformatics.

Hucky Land, Ph.D., Wilmot’s deputy director, describes the group as a “brain tsunami,” adding depth and freshness to Wilmot’s outstanding research team for years to come.

“The goal was to build cohesion through attracting high-performing individuals who can offer new ideas and new perspectives to our research environment,” Land says. “On top of that, you’re happy if you can attract from the best organizations in the world — and we’ve done that.”

Cancer is a private concern for many of them. Stephano Mello’s wife, for instance, had cancer at a young age. She is doing well, but the experience moved him deeply. Isaac Harris lost a close friend to breast cancer, and it stirred an urgency that drives him daily. Rachael Turner decided to pursue cancer research, in part, because her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother struggled with the disease.

As the newcomers settle in — buying houses, starting or growing their families, competing for research funding — all of them are also coping with 2020’s unique challenges due to the coronavirus pandemic, including temporary lab shutdowns. They’ve needed to sort out life’s hurdles while planning for professional goals.

“Rochester is a great place for all of that,” says Land, who was central to the recruiting effort. “People here can have a good life while working very hard.”