April 2, 2021

Shannon Silva: UMass Amherst Rising Researcher

An undergraduate’s lab work focuses on fundamental questions of cancer biology
Shannon Silva ’21, biology, Commonwealth Honors College

“There will be many times when your experiment goes wrong. But failure is good. Change your outlook and treat failure as a learning experience.”

In March 2020, when COVID-19 limited the time Shannon Silva could work in a UMass Amherst lab to conduct research on her Commonwealth Honors College thesis, she was understandably frustrated.  “I had to do a 360 and rework the project,” she says. Shannon quickly adapted and figured out how to move her laboratory analyses online. That experience, she says, made her a more resilient and resourceful researcher.

For her thesis project, Shannon investigated whether females exposed to oxybenzone (a chemical used in sunscreen) during pregnancy and lactation develop more tumors. She worked under the direction of Laura Vandenberg, associate dean of undergraduate academic affairs and associate professor in the School of Public Health and Health Sciences. She learned how to grade tumors from a pathologist at Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, Mass.

Praising Shannon for her detail-oriented approach, Vandenberg says: “Her independent research project touches upon a fundamental question in the field of cancer biology: why does pregnancy convey protection against breast cancer, and do environmental chemicals interfere with this protection?”

Data from Shannon’s project are currently under analysis at the Vandenberg lab. The research has found that oxybenzone exposure in pregnant females promoted earlier tumor development relative to nonpregnant control mice.  The ongoing research could provide further evidence that pregnancy is a vulnerable period of mammary gland development and establish a stronger link between oxybenzone and cancer.

In addition to giving her the opportunity to contribute to two soon-to-be-published research papers from the Vandenberg lab, Shannon says that UMass gave her “more great educational opportunities than I had the capacity to utilize.” As a first-year student, she was part of the Commonwealth Honors College BioTAP living/learning community. In her sophomore year, she conducted research in Belize through the UMass Tropical Field Biology Program. And in her junior year, she was a junior fellow in the UMass Life Sciences Program. She also benefited from internships and scholarships.

Having graduated from UMass Amherst in February 2021, Shannon is now an intern in the exploratory immunology department of Bristol Myers Squibb in Cambridge and is applying to PhD programs for the fall. Inspired by her UMass experiences, she wants to pursue cancer biology. “I wouldn’t have come as far as I have without Laura Vandenberg as a mentor,” she says. “Her guidance and my work in her lab showed me that research can translate to meaningful change in how we approach human disease.”