Q&A: Rebecca Wates, crowdfunded cancer researcher

Kansas City native Rebecca Wates made history this month as the American Cancer Society’s first crowdfunded cancer researcher. A postdoctoral fellow at the University of Kansas Medical Center in Kansas City, Kan., the 33-year-old Wates received a total of $110,500 in donations from the crowdfunding platform Crowdrise that will finance a two-year grant for ovarian cancer research. Wates hopes her research will help to find gentler treatments for ovarian cancer patients as well as increase the diagnostic tools available for detecting the disease.

Missouri Business Alert caught up with Wates to discuss her crowdfunding efforts and research plans. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Missouri Business Alert: How long have you had an interest in ovarian cancer research?

Rebecca Wates: Actually, when I started graduate school at Mizzou, I had an interest in breast cancer research because my mom is a breast cancer survivor. Typically, in the first year or so of grad school you do rotations in laboratories. So one of the people I had a chance to rotate with is a phenomenal scientist named Sharon Stack. I did some experiments on an ovarian cancer project (in Stack’s lab), and I loved the research. I love research, I love to answer questions. That’s how I ended up on an ovarian cancer project.

I also lost an aunt to ovarian cancer. And that is a point that I think is sometimes overlooked with ovarian cancer: I was drawn to breast cancer research I think in part because of my mom, but also because there’s more funding for breast cancer research, because it affects more women. On the opposite of that, although breast cancer affects more women, ovarian cancer is more fatal. And there’s a severe lack of diagnostic tools and processes as well as treatments that are not so hard on patients; treatments for ovarian cancer are really hard on people. So, it worked out for the best with me that I ended up in a field that really needs a lot of attention and advocacy and research.

How did you hear about the grant from ACS? Did you know it was going to be a crowdfunded effort?

The ACS funds a number of postdoctoral scholars annually. Essentially, based on the number of applications that they received, they chose my application to be funded through the crowdfunding effort. The postdoctoral fellows who apply have a wide range of backgrounds and research interests, so they fund people based on the types of donations they get. Sometimes they get donations from private sources that specifically want their money to go to breast cancer or to lung cancer because of a loved one who’s passed. My program director, Dr. Bill Phelps, advocated for my work and got me pushed onto the first crowdfunding effort.

The ACS gave information about a scientist who was interested in finding treatments for ovarian cancer and was dedicated to that cause, and people donated based on their interest. So they raised the money to fund the grant.

Tell me a little about your background and what sparked your interest in cancer research.

I’m a graduate of Lincoln College Preparatory Academy which is the No. 1 high school in Missouri, and I’m very proud of that fact because it’s a public school. The teachers there are very dedicated and very amazing. I went to undergrad at a historically black university in New Orleans, Dillard University, which is an amazing place that I love and visit as much as I can.

While in undergrad I did three internships. The first was at Emory University in Atlanta, the second was at Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, N.Y., and before my senior year I went to Mizzou to intern. I loved it at Mizzou, and I still am in contact with my mentor from that time, Dr. Michael Lewis. And I wanted to be closer to my parents in Missouri.

What about when you’re not in the lab? What do you like to do in your spare time?

I am a newlywed; I’ve been married now for 13 months and we are the proud parents of an English bulldog, Raisin. I spend a lot of time with my dog, and I also really love to cook and spend time with my family. My husband has something like 12 cousins and we’re all in the same age group, so we get together a lot.


Photo: American Cancer Society/Facebook

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