IPiB Thesis Defense November 6, 2023: John Ahn

John AhnJohn Ahn, an IPiB graduate student, will be defending his Ph.D. research on November 6, 2023. His research in the Coyle Lab examines how breast cancer cells behave in their physical environment, including the rate at which cells’ internal structures change in response to environmental cues. He hopes his research can help to supplement information that medical providers gain from genetic markers to provide patients with a more accurate prognosis and to help guide treatment options.

“Breast cancer diagnosis can include genotype testing, which helps to inform a patient’s prognosis,” explains Ahn. “There are characteristic mutations that give a lot of information about how well various treatments may work for a patient, but there is also a lot of variability. Cancers can respond differently, even among patients with the same genetic markers.”

Ahn’s research aims to narrow the gap between a patient’s hypothesized prognosis and actual outcomes by looking at the morphology and behavior of breast cancer cells themselves.

“When cancer metastasizes, it goes from the primary tumor site to other sites in the body,” says Ahn. “This means navigating complex environments, squeezing between tissues, traveling through the bloodstream, and moving through extracellular matrices. The ability to process changes to their physical environment is essential to how cancer cells spread.”

Using an assay developed in the Coyle Lab, Ahn identified characteristic patterns indicative of the internal machinery that drives movement and morphological changes in breast cancer cells. By comparing different breast cancer cell lines to each other and to non-cancerous cells, Ahn found evidence that the average shape for breast cancer cells undergoes morphological changes — referred to in his research as morphological events — due to a disturbance in the cells’ environment. Ahn found that the frequency and extent of these morphological events may be correlated with how aggressive the cancer line is. His findings are corroborated by the information scientists gain through genetic testing and other studies.

Through his research, Ahn developed the skills in computational analysis that he sought to build in graduate school. “When I came to IPiB, I really wanted to learn about how to use mathematical techniques to explore biological questions and to parse through large quantities of data so that we can present the data in ways that make it clear and understandable,” says Ahn. After graduating, Ahn will continue to manipulate large datasets when he joins the data analytics team at the Portland, Oregon-based The Gunter Group.

In addition to his research, Ahn contributed to the IPiB community by serving on the program’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee. He was also a WISCIENCE Scientific Teaching Fellow. There, he discovered a passion for teaching and mentorship.

“As a Teaching Fellow, I worked with freshmen and I was really able to connect with my students,” recalls Ahn. “They were new to college, and I could be a mentor. I helped them adjust to college and got to teach them basic biology, which I really enjoyed. And, I formed a nice community with the other teaching fellows.”

Ahn also maintained community with family in his hometown of Appleton and close friends from high school, all of whom offered support during important transitions in his graduate school experience, such as the onset of COVID and moving to the Coyle Lab after his second year. He emphasizes the importance of community and support for all graduate students.

“Graduate school has highs and lows for everybody,” says Ahn. “It can get quite stressful. Having solid support is a key to success. It was a big part of my success. I want to give a shout out to my closest friends, my parents, my brother, and my sister. I’m grateful to them for their support.”

To learn more about Ahn’s research, attend his Ph.D. defense, “Spatiotemporal Analysis of Metazoan Cell Morphological Dynamics on Micropatterned Substrates,” on Monday, November 6 at 2:00 p.m. CT in Room 175 of Hector F. DeLuca Biochemistry Laboratories.