April 29, 2020

The Future of Cancer Biology

UMass Amherst junior Shannon Silva becomes a Goldwater Scholar

Achievement in research can be powered by a deeply personal spark. For her studies in cancer origins, Shannon Silva, a junior biology major in the UMass Amherst Commonwealth Honors College, has received the nationally competitive Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship.

The Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Foundation aims to provide a continuing source of highly qualified scholars to work as scientists, mathematicians, and engineers. To this end, it supports STEM students like Silva who have the potential to contribute to their disciplines, and plan to pursue a graduate degree. Upon graduating in 2021, Silva hopes to apply her research experience toward earning a PhD in molecular cancer biology.

Silva presenting her research in the Vandenberg Lab at the 2019 Undergraduate Research Conference

“Because of my family history with cancer, it was always something in the back of my mind,” says Silva. “It made me want to dive in deeper and do biology research. After diving in deeper, I feel that my passion for research has gained greater depth and direction. It is so interesting, and it could potentially really help people.”

In the lab of Laura N. Vandenberg, associate professor in the School of Public Health and Health Sciences, Silva has participated in research that has the potential to give insight into the individual risk that results from environmental chemical exposures. For her honors thesis, she is studying the effect of endocrine-disrupting chemicals like oxybenzone on the development of mammary tumors and other tissue sites. Found in many personal care products, food preservatives, and food packaging, the chemicals Silva studies mimic natural hormones like estrogen in the human body—they can initiate an overproliferation of cells that “think” they are supposed to multiply when they aren’t.

Silva has extended her range beyond campus: she interned at the antibody research company Cell Signaling Technology, and was a research scholar for the biotechnology company Amgen in summer 2019. Accepted into the Undergraduate Research Program at Gerstner Sloan Kettering for summer 2020, Silva hopes that the program will be postponed for only a few months, so she and others will still be able to benefit from its features of career development and graduate school preparation.

Silva’s nomination for the Goldwater was made possible by UMass Amherst’s Office of National Scholarship Advisement (ONSA), an advising service available to all UMass Amherst undergraduate and graduate students, as well as alumni. Silva was coached through her application process by ONSA director Madalina Akli.

“I had heard about the Goldwater through the Honors College, and went to an information session about it in my sophomore year,” relates Silva. “At the time, I didn’t think I was ready to apply. You have to write a comprehensive document based on your research. I revisited it my junior year and submitted my application. ONSA was helpful in supporting my application; Madalina was part of the interview process. They are very supportive of the Goldwater—it’s very competitive. The application is so extensive that I knew even if I didn’t get it, this has been a great experience.”