Scholarship recipient and medical student Francesca M. Gualano, shown growing cells in 3D, is using this year to do translational brain tumor research in Hackensack Meridian Health’s Pediatric Neuro-oncology Lab, the only one of its kind in the state, at the Center for Discovery and Innovation.
Since her senior year of high school, third-year medical student Francesca Gualano of Totowa has known that her destiny was to become a neurosurgeon scientist, but how would she get there? When she received a scholarship to attend Hackensack Meridian School of Medicine’s accelerated program, she knew that her plans were coming together.
Her interest in neurosurgery and neuroscience goes back many years. As a senior in high school, Gualano wasn’t particularly fond of the traditional classroom environment.
“Learning from lectures and PowerPoint slides was not exhilarating for me,” she said. “As a senior, I engaged in an independent curriculum centered in targeted cancer therapies, and I interned at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center every week, learning from principal investigators. It was fascinating.”
Gualano’s research focus was in RNA interference therapeutics, and she delved deep into the science behind silencing certain genes that are linked to cancer.
“One day during my internship, I was in a pathology lab and was asked to accompany a colleague to the morgue. On one of the countertops, there was a row of glass containers, each holding a human brain. It was such a captivating sight, and at that moment, I wanted to dedicate my life to learning about this fascinating organ,” she said.
Since then, her interest and passion for neuroscience, and its oncological aspect, has grown tremendously. Before she even matriculated at the School of Medicine, she reached out to Stanley R. Terlecky, Ph.D., associate dean of Research and Graduate Studies at the School of Medicine, to see how she could become involved. He put Gualano in touch with Florian Thomas, M.D., MA, Ph.D., MS, chair of the Neuroscience Institute and Department of Neuroscience at Hackensack Meridian Hackensack University Medical Center. After learning more about her interests and desire to pursue research, he connected her with neurosurgeon-scientist Timothy Vogel, M.D.
Her eagerness to learn eventually landed her a research position in the Pediatric Neuro-Oncology Lab at the Hackensack Meridian Health Center for Discovery and Innovation, funded by the philanthropic work of Tackle Kids Cancer.
Gualano is currently using this year to solely focus upon translational brain tumor research in the lab, led by pediatric neuro-oncologist Derek Hanson, M.D., Claire Carter, Ph.D., a research scientist, and Dr. Vogel. The lab seeks to meet the clinical and research needs of children with central nervous system tumors.
She is thrilled to be so involved in research, and she attributes the opportunities that she has received thus far to the School of Medicine’s programming and learning structure.
“If not for this accelerated program or the school’s commitment to individualized education, it would have been infeasible to do what I am doing as a third-year medical student,” said Gualano. “I don’t roll out of bed in the morning, I jump out of bed, because I sincerely love what I do, and I can’t wait to do it another day. To share the same purpose and vision as those who you are learning from is exceptionally impactful, insomuch as it becomes feasible to actualize that vision and translate it into helping those suffering.”