This special feature is brought to you by the Science/AAAS Custom Publishing Office

Careers in Cancer Research : Seeking Out the Source

Many cancer researchers focus on biomarkers that could provide diagnostics for the early detection of cancer. In addition, stem-like cells associated with cancer could unveil how this disease grows and spreads. These research areas provide exciting opportunities for new scientists and are certain to be active areas of investigation for decades to come, with funding available from public and private sources.

Argonne National Laboratory (
Harvard Medical School (
The University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center (
University of Michigan (

In early February 2006, data indicated that annual cancer deaths in the United States dropped for the first time in more than 70 years. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, cancer claimed 556,902 lives in 2003, 369 fewer than in 2002. That drop—a small one—serves mostly as a milestone. It probably arose from several changes: a reduced use of tobacco products and improved detection and treatment of cancer. Still, the battle continues. Despite the overall drop in deaths, more women actually died from cancer in 2003 than in 2002. So research on cancer will remain important, probably for decades to come.

Cancer research attracts a large number of scientists from a variety of disciplines: chemistry, drug development, epidemiology, molecular biology, and many others. Likewise, scientists from academics, government, and industry study cancer. As a result, this field produces many exciting advances. Some of the most recent include the discovery of stem-like cells related to cancer, target-specific drug therapy (Herceptin and Gleevec, for example), and the possibility of a universal molecular basis for this suite of diseases.

The experts interviewed here predict even more exciting advances ahead. Likewise, theses scientists see cancer research as a productive and sustainable career choice.

Spread Out Your Skills

When asked about the skills needed to study cancer, Diane J. Rodi, biochemistry group leader in the biosciences division at Argonne National Laboratory, says, “This is a hard question to answer, because so many different fields of science are needed to contribute to the development of a new therapy or the understanding of a disease.” She adds, “Biology is more than just molecular or cellular biology today. It is increasingly computational and interdisciplinary in nature.” As a result, she believes that the capability of working within a large, multidisciplinary team has become the best skill to develop. In addition, she says that a young scientist needs “the ability to grasp the significance of work far outside your field.” So instead of merely specializing in one area, a future cancer researcher should develop skills and knowledge from several disciplines.

Other scientists agree. Joseph H. McCarty, assistant professor in the Department of Cancer Biology at The University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, says, “The most important skill is to be multidisciplinary.” He adds, “You need to understand diverse fields and be able to integrate them into a common connection.”

That interdisciplinary flavor of cancer research also produces large amounts of data. Daniel Rhodes—a graduate student in the lab of Arul M. Chinnaiyan, who is S. P. Hicks Professor of Pathology and director of research informatics at the University of Michigan—says, “One common theme in many discoveries in the past few years has been high throughput approaches and looking at many genes in a single assay.” Consequently, it’s no surprise that Chinnaiyan encourages students to gain capabilities in bioinformatic analysis. He says, “We are nearing the age of looking at cancer with more of a systems perspective and studying all of the molecular constituents of a process.”

Another of Chinnaiyan’s graduate students, Scott Tomlins, also sees a growing need for skills in data analysis. He says, “Some fields are almost flooded with data. You need to think creatively about how to analyze data.”

If you cannot do the analysis yourself, you must at least be able to talk with scientists who can. Tomlins says, “It’s important to be able to speak in both biological and bioinformatic languages.”

Competitive But Widespread

The predictions for future funding vary. Charles Dimitroff, assistant professor in the Department of Dermatology at Harvard Medical School, says, “As the projected U.S. National Institutes of Health budget increases are not anticipated to keep pace with inflation, significant cuts in the number of funded grants and in the funding amounts will result.” But he adds, “There are many other venues for obtaining cancer research funding, but reduced NIH funding will cause a surge in grant applications to these other organizations and make it more difficult to obtain funding from these sources.”

He also believes that faculty positions will become even more competitive. Nonetheless, he adds, “I’m not suggesting that aspiring cancer research scientists pick a new sport, but they should be well prepared before entertaining the thought of research independence and autonomy in academia.” Instead of bypassing academics, Dimitroff suggests a strategy: “I propose seeking employment in both academic departments and clinical departments in hospitals that do not normally sustain a large percentage of cancer researchers. Departments of oncology, tumor biology, tumor immunology, or cancer therapeutics, for example, are typically dominated by cancer researchers and obtaining a position in one of these departments would be extremely competitive.”

McCarty completed what he calls a fairly exhaustive job search just a year ago, and he found considerable recruiting in two areas: basic cancer research and molecular neuroscience. “Compared to many other fields,” says McCarty, “cancer research is still fairly robust. Although the job market is competitive, there are lots of opportunities, especially if you can span neuroscience and cancer.” He adds that there is lots of funding—both public and private—in the general area of brain cancer. He says, “There’s really good funding for meduloblastoma, neuroblastoma, glioblastoma, and related areas.”

A Translational Turn

Several of the experts interviewed here point to a growing emphasis on translational research. “It is easiest to get funding for work that is translational or nearly translational,” says Chinnaiyan. For example, his own lab’s work—published in the October 8, 2005, issue of —on recurrent gene fusion in prostate cancer provides an example. In addition, he points to biomarkers as good examples of potentially translational work that can be funded comparatively easily. Dimitroff agrees: “I think that research efforts attempting to elucidate a biomarker of early malignancy will always be fundable entities. Likewise, development of novel techniques or approaches that help discover these tumor-specific markers will be fundable programs. In general, cancer research funding is always available for projects that are innovative, of high risk, and interdisciplinary in nature.”

When trying to predict fundable research in the future, Rodi says, “I’m not sure my crystal ball is clear enough to answer this question.” Then she adds, “My bias is toward multidisciplinary approaches, especially those that can harness the power of tumor typing by gene expression pattern. In addition, new imaging platforms—made possible by advances in a range of nanotechnologies—have huge promise as methods for monitoring both disease progression and the impact of therapy.” For instance, Rodi and her colleagues are working on techniques that could monitor vasculature in a tumor in vivo.

Stay Open Minded

Although many scientists might aim at academics, industry also offers many opportunities. McCarty mentions knowing several people who moved to biotechnology or pharmaceutical companies to do cancer research. “They are very happy with their decisions,” he says, “and they feel challenged with their work.”

Dimitroff sees lots of opportunities outside of academics in Boston. He says, “I’m obviously biased in my belief that Boston is one of the premier locales for finding a position in cancer research. Boston has become a global center for major biotechnology and small startup companies.” Chinnaiyan also sees colleagues going to industry. He says, “This is happening more and more, although it is often better to do this later in your career. More seasoned academics in cancer research often get recruited by large pharma and biotech companies.”

In the end, what scientists work on probably matters more than whether they work in academics, government, or industry. As Rodi says, “I’d look for a position where I can collaborate with energetic scientists who have new ideas and a vision of the future.” That energy and vision can help any scientist build a career in cancer research.

Mike May ( is a publishing consultant for science and technology based in Minnesota.

DOI: 10.1126/science.opms.r0600005

Follow Science Careers

Search Jobs

Enter keywords, locations or job types to start searching for your new science career.

Top articles in Careers