Robert Yamulla

Yamulla, who is currently researching ovarian cancer, visited GNA to speak with students.

Jasmyne Morgans, Student Writer

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On November 21, a young man named Robert Yamulla paid a visit to the Greater Nanticoke Area High School in order to give a presentation to students interested in science; namely, with juniors and seniors he discussed how to incorporate their passions into their futures, and he spoke about several science-related job titles which may appeal to pupils, including those related to veterinary medicine, genetic counseling, and science journalism. Yamulla provided his audiences with helpful tips on financial smarts and effectively paying for college in a manner which allows one to escape student loans.

The GNA Insider has had the honor of interviewing Yamulla:

What made you choose the path towards the study of pancreatic cancer?

So right now I’m working on an ovarian cancer project.  I became interested in ovarian cancer because it’s one of the hardest cancers to detect.  Believe it or not, we still don’t know exactly what cell (or organ) ovarian cancer comes from. To make things even more complicated, we don’t even know what genes need to be messed up in that cell to cause the cancer.  Because we don’t know exactly what causes it or where it comes from, it’s really hard to find in a patient. For all cancer cases, the earlier you find it, the easier it is to treat or cure. So really I became interested in ovarian cancer because I’m hoping to help find ways to detect it early-on.  And I’m hoping to do that by addressing the two fundamental questions that I listed above. What cell does it come from? What genes need to be messed up in that cell to cause cancer?

What do you do on your spare time?

That’s a really good question!  I’m definitely someone who works hard, but I really believe that a work-life balance is important.  I think that doing fun stuff outside work actually makes work time more productive. Everyone functions better with breaks!

I do pretty much anything outdoors.  I love to hike with my dogs, fish, hunt, ski, and ride snowmobiles in upstate NY.  I also really like to cook. To be honest, much of my free time ends up going toward my dogs.  They’re pretty active, and I try to take them for a hike through the woods after work every day.  They always end up sprinting around the woods and getting super muddy.

What High School did you go to? What kind of student were you?

I went to MMI in Freeland.  I was a pretty good student, but definitely wasn’t top of my class.  I tried to keep the grades as A’s an B’s, and spent a lot of time doing volunteer work.  I was definitely social, and found myself at friends’ houses most weekends. I was also the kind of student that needed to be involved in everything.  I did student council, mock trial, PJAS, planned dances, etc.

What was your dream job as a child?

This is actually a super hard question.  I really don’t think that I had a dream job in mind as a child.  I just knew that I wanted to help people or animals in some way. So I definitely considered things like veterinary medicine, or a MD.  The scientist route didn’t occur to me until I went to college, but it turns out that it’s also a great career aimed at helping people.

What brought you to where you are now?

The people.  I really believe that the people you form relationships with along your academic/professional journey make a profound difference in who you are and who you become.  When you go to college, don’t be afraid to reach out to your professors to learn more about what they do. I ended up meeting some lifelong mentors in college, and they really influenced my career path.

Have you completed most of the goals you set in life?

I’m not even close.   When I gave a lecture to your class, I asked whether you all knew what you “wanted to do when you grow up”.  When most people didn’t know, I admitted that I still have no idea what I want to do when I grow up! I have a strong feeling that I’ll feel the same way in 10 years.  Going through college and a career simply expands the number of things that you might want to accomplish. With every life step, you end up discovering new exciting things. I hope to always be chasing some sort of crazy goal.  Life’s pretty awesome when you consider the myriad of things that you have yet to see, learn and accomplish.

What is the latest thing you are studying?

Right now I’m finishing up my first ovarian cancer paper, which I’m hoping to publish in Nature Genetics.  I have two more experiments to go, but they’re quick ones. We think that we’ve figured out (1) common combinations of genes that need to be messed up in order to drive ovarian cancer and (2) one ovarian cell type that seems to become cancer more than another.  Of course, my paper won’t completely answer the question of “Where does ovarian cancer begin?”, but I hope that it’s a start. I’m also gearing up to teach a scientific philosophy course to high school seniors in the Spring.