By KATIE BORKOWSKI
LE MARS/SAN FRANCISCO – A 2005 Gehlen Catholic School graduate, now working in cancer research as a postdoctoral scholar at the University of California, San Francisco, credited her Catholic education for providing a foundation for her career.
“I study the interactions between the immune system and cancer development,” said Dr. Megan Ruhland, the daughter of Michael and Nancy Ruhland, parishioners at All Saints Parish in Le Mars.
After graduating from Gehlen, she attended Creighton University where she graduated in 2009 with a bachelor of science in biology and Spanish. Then Ruhland went to Washington University in St. Louis where she received her Ph.D. in molecular cell biology in 2015.
She received an Irvington Postdoctoral Fellowship from the Cancer Research Institute (CRI). For more information about the Cancer Research Institute’s Fellowship program visit the website cancerresearch.org/scientists/fellowships-grants/post-doctoral-fellows.
“The CRI focuses on funding both fundamental and translational research in immunology with the overarching goal of finding better therapies and cures for the various types of cancer,” said Ruhland.
She noted recent breakthroughs in cancer therapy have demonstrated “the power of the immune system in combating cancer and thus the aim of current tumor immunologists is to harness that power to better control disease and ultimately eliminate cancer altogether. The postdoctoral fellowship is geared toward funding young scientists who have newly received their Ph.D. but have yet to move into a faculty position in academic research.”
“Cancer is a horrible disease that affects so many people,” said Ruhland. “To me, research is hope. While it is frustrating that progress, at times, can feel slow, the truth is that there is meaningful progress being made every day. I feel honored to be a part of a huge team of scientists from all around the world that are working to better understand the causes of the disease and are continuously striving to find cures.”
The goal of the fellowship funding, she explained, is to perform experiments that “add to our understanding of how the immune system identifies cancer cells in the body and, after having identified the cancer cells, how the immune system decides what to do with that information.”
“My fellowship research is focused on the ‘handling’ and ‘dissemination’ of information throughout the different cell types of the immune system,” said the postdoctoral scholar. “We know that the immune system is very good at detecting invaders like viruses and bacteria, but while it seems as if the immune system can also initially detect cancers, something is going wrong with the functional output following detection.”
She and other researchers, Ruhland continued, want to find a way to “re-educate” the immune system “so it knows how to respond appropriately and can thus mount a direct and targeted response against the cancer, thus eradicating it just as it does when it encounters a virus or other infection.”
Ruhland credited the small class sizes at Gehlen, which allowed for a lot of one-on-one attention, for helping prepare her for what she is doing now.
“This was especially helpful in the advanced level classes where access to the teacher’s time is highly beneficial,” she said. “The classes could move through subject matter quickly since the teacher had a close sense of how each of us was handling the workload.”
The doctor added Gehlen provided a supportive learning environment “that setup a solid foundation in math and science. At Gehlen, I developed a love for the sciences that would eventually lead me to pursue a career as a cancer immunologist.”
When Ruhland isn’t working, she enjoys hiking with her husband Casey Lammers, going to movies and reading. In San Francisco, she is a member of St. Ignatius Parish.