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Lea Haverbeck Simon photo

Dissertation Fellowship Supports Student’s Cancer Research

Lea Haverbeck Simon wants to make a difference in the lives of breast cancer patients. Haverbeck Simon, a student in the Sport and Exercise Science Ph.D. – Exercise Physiology Concentration program, was awarded a Dissertation Fellowship this year for her research, “Effects of Exercise Training on Circulating Cancer-Associated Immune Cells in Breast Cancer Patients.”

The fellowship recognizes excellence in research promise as students enter the final phase of their doctoral program and provides a stipend and tuition waiver. Eligibility criteria include an outstanding academic record, faculty support and an intention to complete the dissertation during the fellowship term. 

“I started out doing research on the effects of exercise on chemotherapy-induced cardiotoxicity in rats and on immune cells in mice. I decided to switch to the human cancer patients on campus, and now I’m looking at the effects of exercise on several immune cells, most importantly myeloid-derived suppressor cells. Along with some other immune cells, they play an important role during the disease of cancer,” said Haverbeck Simon.

Originally from Germany, she earned a Bachelor of Science degree from Heinrich Heine University Düsseldorf. While pursuing her master’s in exercise physiology from Central Michigan University, she was intrigued by a peer’s presentation about doxorubicin-induced cardiotoxicity research conducted at UNC. She learned about the University of Northern Colorado Cancer Rehabilitation Institute, which has been at the forefront of clinical exercise-based rehabilitation research and programming since its 1996 founding.

Reid Hayward, Ph.D., a Sport and Exercise Science professor and UNCCRI director, has mentored Haverbeck Simon since she started the program. 

“The overarching impact of the work that we do is to justify the incorporation of our form of exercise into the rehabilitation programs of cancer survivors as a standard of care. The other thing is to gain a better understanding of why exercise is beneficial and what mechanisms are involved,” Hayward said. “Lea is looking at myeloid-derived suppressor cells, and we know what they do in cancer patients, but does exercise modulate them in any way?”

He said Haverbeck Simon stands out for her dedication to different research areas and proficiency in exercise physiology. Hayward believes an integral part of her success in the program is her “saying yes.”

“She’s always willing to get involved whenever there’s a need or an opportunity,” he explained. 

And she’s been plenty involved. 

She worked as a certified clinical cancer exercise specialist, where she led patients in individualized training sessions. She volunteered over 1,000 hours at the institute and served as a teaching assistant and adjunct instructor. All while honing her research skills.

“The fellowship allows me to have the financial support to fully focus on my dissertation. I also did a lot of data collection over the years and now I finally have the time to write up some things to submit to conferences. I’m going to a conference next month to present some of my research,” said Haverbeck Simon.

She points to the collaborative environment between the biology and exercise physiology departments as one of the outstanding aspects of the program, allowing her to develop collegial relationships with faculty members from both departments. 

“I’m thankful that Dr. Hayward took a chance on me and that I get to work with him. He is so passionate about the institute. When the new interns come in, he gives a speech about how this program was established. It gives me motivation to do all these things for the patients and find out things to ultimately help them improve their quality of life,” she said.

Haverbeck Simon would do it all again.

“I’ve made so many friendships here, and I’ve had a great experience with all the faculty and staff at UNC,” she said.

After graduating, Haverbeck Simon hopes to be a postdoctoral fellow. Ultimately, she’d like to become a professor to pursue her love of teaching and research.

— written by Brenda Gillen