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Cynthia Tope on Synthesizing Enthusiasm for Science: From the Lab to the Podium

Cynthia Tope
Cynthia Tope.

While attending a science-focused high school in Kentucky, Cynthia Tope had the opportunity to participate in a chemistry lab during her senior year. It was within this lab that she happened to study the cancer drug cisplatin – coincidentally the very same drug that her grandfather was taking at the time to treat his lung and prostate cancer.

“It really brought the research home,” says Tope. The experience inspired her current career path in the biological sciences, as well as her recent recognition at the AAAS Annual Meeting 2020 as the Helen F. Holt Scholarship for Early Career Women in Science recipient. The award recognizes an outstanding graduate student, and offsets the costs of for her to attend the meeting and present her research.

Tope says, as a graduate student with limited income, she would not have been able to attend the meeting or be able to present her research last past February in Seattle without the scholarship. “I was able to meet a bunch of very, very strong women who are excellent leaders in our fields. They are inspiring, to hear their stories and what they do.”

As a Ph.D. student at the University of Georgia, her studies go deep into the interior of living cells, where the smallest of interactions can have a huge impact. In particular, she studies the regulation of an important class of proteins, called regulators of G-protein signaling, or RGS proteins. They help facilitate signaling between certain cell receptors, which, when over- and under-expressed, are associated with cancer. For this reason, many scientists have developed cancer drugs targeting these receptors and are interested in further investing how RGS proteins can be harnessed for therapeutic purposes.  

“It is critical to understand how these proteins are regulated naturally in the cell,” says Tope. “If we know how the cell turns the RGS proteins ‘off and on,’ we can then be more informed about how to develop drugs to mimic that.”

Tope is fascinated with how the change of one amino acid to another can be involved in changing or eliminating interactions that could promote cancer in a person’s cells.

Cynthia Tope
Cynthia Tope. Credit: Michael Colella, Colella Digital.

At the recent AAAS Annual Meeting, Tope presented her most recent research depicting how one RGS protein, called RGS10, interacts and binds with a regulatory protein, called calmodulin. But, she notes, communicating these intricacies without using jargon is very challenging. The meeting was a great opportunity to practice communicating her work to the public, and learning from others, she says.

Tope says the meeting exposed her to other people in her field who are focused more on communication and policy – two facets of science that she is considering pursuing and which she considers a strength of AAAS. In fact, it was by speaking with a former AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellow in 2018 that Tope first learned about AAAS. Through this conversation, she realized that joining the organization was “a natural step forward” in becoming more involved in science communication and policy.

Along with being recognized by AAAS for her work and being a member, Tope has done a lot of work in various science communication and policy roles in her spare time. This includes helping to host Science Olympiad tournaments every semester at the University of Georgia. These competitions require students to complete science challenges, such as performing a chemistry experiment to find the molarity of an acid or solving a forensics case.

“It is such a unique and wonderful way to inspire a passion for different STEM fields and allows students to really delve into what interests them,” Tope says. “I love seeing how these students and teams grow as scientists and the unique ways they approach the problems.”

Just as Tope’s passion for chemistry was concocted in her high school lab, she enjoys creating enthusiasm about science among other students. She spent one year as a teacher’s assistant at an extended YMCA program for kindergarteners. This included hosting the occasional science session for the kids. “They knew that when they walked in and I had my goggles on, it was science time. They were so excited. It was the most adorable thing I’ve ever seen,” says Tope.

Children are the best scientists, she emphasizes, since they have an innate curiosity for science and understanding the world around them. “We can’t do enough to support that,” she says.

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Michelle Hampson