Graduate student takes her love of science to Capitol Hill

Kari Gaither from WSU traveled to Washington, D.C., this spring as part of a group of 15 early-career scientists from across the United States to participate in biomedical research advocacy for the inaugural American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) Early-Career Hill Day.

Gaither represented more than 14,000 graduate students, medical students and residents, and clinical and postdoctoral fellows that make up the associate membership of the AACR.

Gaither’s group included one other young scientist and an AACR staffer. They made the rounds thanking legislators for their support and advocating for the continuation of funding of research through NIH programs. They visited representatives from the offices of Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), Representative Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Representative Andy Harris (R-MD), Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), and Senator Brian Shatz (D-Hawaii).

Senators Murray, Mikulski and Shatz are members of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor Health and Human Services, which has purview over NIH funding.

According to the AACR, continued growth in the NIH budget for the future is required to fully reverse the effects of more than a decade of stagnant funding. Gaither went advocating to highlight to legislators the impact that stagnant funding has on the scientific research community.

“The success rates for NIH grants is abysmal and the resulting atmosphere is stifling,” she said.

In fact, it is so difficult to secure funding and establish a career in research that many people leave the field for more lucrative and/or less demanding career choices.

“This is a major reason that the progress in cancer research has been so slow over the last 40 years. Cancer is one of the biggest challenges of the millennium. We need more funding overall in cancer research to allow for innovation and translation of basic research to clinical results, and to strengthen America’s place in the health sciences,” said Gaither.

“There’s still so much we don’t know and we need to continue to gain knowledge,” she said. “This early-career investigators program is important to promote why we need sustained increases in NIH funding—to continue to have growth in progress in the cancer research field.”

Gaither is from Sunnyside, Washington, a community located in the Yakima Valley.

“I have always had a love of science and wanted to become a research scientist in order to improve the human condition.”

She earned her Bachelor of Science degree from Evergreen State College. During that time she held internships, and later worked as a post-baccalaureate, at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Washington.

“I love the Pacific Northwest. So when I decided to pursue graduate studies, I naturally looked at Washington State University as one of my options. I could tell right away that it was going to be a good fit. The atmosphere in the College of Pharmacy has been very supportive and conducive to learning.”

Gaither is currently completing her Ph.D. in pharmaceutical sciences at WSU. She is a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow and is working in the research lab of Assistant Professor David Liu, studying a specific protein called ATF5 and its role in the progression of breast cancer. Gaither is hoping her research will result in novel ways this protein can be targeted in certain cancer cells for treatment.

“Classical chemotherapies are not specific, so cancer cells and regular cells are both hit,” said Gaither. “It’s very important to continue this type of research so I’m grateful for the opportunity to tell some of our nation’s legislators about my work at WSU.”