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Six new cancer research fellows announced by 5 For The Fight

These individuals are poised to make major impacts in understanding and treating cancer.

Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI) at the University of Utah (U), in partnership with 5 For The Fight, is proud to announce the 2021 Cancer Research Fellowship recipients. Thanks to a $1 million gift from 5 Five For The Fight, six cancer researchers will receive support to help them advance their cancer research programs.

5 For The Fight is a nonprofit, started by Qualtrics, that invites everyone to give $5 for the fight against cancer. 5 For The Fight partners with centers across the world to fund some of the most groundbreaking cancer research being done today.

“This funding represents thousands of individuals fighting back at cancer in honor or memory of their loved ones,” says Lori Kun, head of social impact at Qualtrics. “Adding these talented individuals to the nine existing fellows at Huntsman Cancer Institute announced last year, 5 For The Fight is honored to increase our fellowship to 15 incredibly talented researchers. We are overwhelmed by the quality of applicants and grateful to support these individuals in their most promising work.”

The six fellows were chosen through a highly competitive process to find promising researchers who are early in their careers. These individuals are involved in innovative research and poised to make major impacts in understanding and treating cancer. Funding for the fellowship program comes at a time when securing cancer laboratory grants is more challenging than ever. Fellowships of this nature are rare, particularly for cancer researchers early in their careers.

“We are extremely excited to announce another talented and diverse group of cancer research fellows,” says Brad Cairns, Ph.D., chief academic officer of HCI. “5 For The Fight, Qualtrics, and HCI are dedicated to making a positive difference in the lives of cancer patients. These fellows share that same vision.”

5 For The Fight Cancer Research Fellowship recipients

Matthew Covington, M.D., is fighting for earlier, more accurate detection of breast cancer. As an assistant professor of radiology and imaging sciences at the U and the Center for Quantitative Cancer Imaging at HCI, he specializes in innovating breast imaging to find ways to more accurately detect and diagnose breast cancer. He received his medical degree from the U, and completed his medical training at the Scripps Institute in San Diego, the University of Arizona, and the Mayo Clinic in Arizona. He previously worked as an assistant professor of radiology at Washington University in St. Louis.






Keren Hilgendorf, Ph.D., is fighting cancer by working to understand why obesity accelerates cancer growth. She is an assistant professor of biochemistry at U and a member of HCI where she oversees a cancer research laboratory. She received her PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, followed by postdoctoral training at Stanford University School of Medicine as a Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow.







Mary Playdon, Ph.D., MPH, is fighting cancer by understanding the role of diet and nutrition on cancer risk, health, and longevity after a cancer diagnosis. She aims to improve survival rates of cancer patients through research focused on diet. A nutritional and cancer epidemiologist, she completed a postdoctoral fellowship in metabolic epidemiology with the National Cancer Institute’s Division of Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics. She is a cancer epidemiologist at HCI and an assistant professor of nutrition and integrative physiology at the U.






Alejandro Sanchez, M.D.,  is fighting renal cancer. His work is aimed at understanding the connection between renal cancer and obesity to improve survival outcomes. He is an assistant professor of urology at the U and a surgical oncologist at HCI. He received a Young Investigator Award from the American Society of Clinical Oncology and the Chairman’s Award for Excellence in Basic Science during his urologic oncology fellowship training at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.







Gita Suneja, M.D., M.S., is fighting to improve access to cancer treatment for marginalized populations. A radiation oncologist at HCI and associate professor of radiation oncology at the U, her clinical specialties include the treatment of breast and gynecologic cancers. Her research focuses on enhancing health equity to improve cancer outcomes for all people. She completed her medical degree at Brown University and served as chief resident during her radiation oncology residency training at the University of Pennsylvania.






Christos Vaklavas, M.D., is fighting breast cancer by translating new research insights into clinical trials for breast cancer. He is an associate professor of internal medicine at the U and cares for breast cancer patients at HCI. He is a breast cancer physician leader and oversees the clinical research in breast cancer at HCI. His research has been supported by a Young Investigator Award from the American Society of Clinical Oncology and a Career Catalyst Award from Susan G. Komen.