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Weiva Sieh: Searching for Genetic Cancer Markers in the Real World

A 1988 Westinghouse finalist who worked on rat brains now studies ovarian and prostate cancer



Courtesy Stanford University

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Her finalist year: 1988

Her finalist project: A studying of brain function in rats

What led to the project: Weiva Sieh's parents—immigrants to New York City from China—made an early bet, in real estate, that their children would both be top science students. In the 1970s, years before their children would be old enough to attend, "they bought their house so we could walk to The Bronx High School of Science," the selective school known for producing several Nobel Prize winners over the years, Sieh says.

Of course, getting into the Bronx school meant an exam, not living in a neighborhood. Fortunately, Sieh and her brother both gained admission. Her sophomore year, Sieh entered the school's extracurricular research program, and began working in the lab of Lucy Brown, a professor of neurology and neuroscience at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in Manhattan. The work involved treating rats with naltrexone, a drug that blocks the effects of narcotics and is marketed as Revia and Vivitrol. They then studied images of the rats' brains to see how naltrexone affected brain activity. Sieh entered her part of the project in the 1988 Westinghouse Science Talent Search and placed sixth overall.

The effect on her career: "That was my first real experience with practicing science," Sieh says, and it whetted her appetite for more. She went to Harvard University to study biology, and then went to McGill University in Montreal for medical school.

For awhile she thought she might both practice medicine and do research. After doing a genetic epidemiology research project at McGill, looking at whether family members of head and neck cancer patients had an increased risk of the disease (and finding the topic fascinating), she went to the University of Washington (U.W.) in Seattle to earn a master's degree in epidemiology. She fully intended to do a residency afterward and spend a big part of her life treating patients. Then she fell in love with graduate school and immediately switched into the PhD program. "It wasn't that I didn't like medicine," she says. But "I was so engaged and stimulated by the research that I pretty much never had a chance to go back to do a clinical residency—I was always too interested in what I was doing."

In particular, she became fascinated by the complexities of epidemiology, which is less straightforward than doing experiments on rats as she did as a high schooler. "Studying people is always going to be harder," she says, because there is limited ability to control or measure their environments. "You're not even trying to draw conclusions about causes—only attempting to find associations or correlations." Even then, it takes several studies for a consensus to emerge. But Sieh enjoys these complications and the real-world nature of the field "because I'm interested in people," she says. "If you want to understand what causes human disease, it's not like there are better options."

Her dissertation looked at whether variants in the PSA gene—that is, the gene that codes for the PSA (prostate specific antigen)protein doctors use as a screen for the existence or recurrence of prostate cancer—had any influence on developing the cancer. (Later she did a postdoc at U.W., focusing on statistical genetics; she also met her husband there, a fellow MD/PhD, although his career took the opposite turn—he's now a practicing family doctor).

What she's doing now: These days, Sieh is a newly appointed assistant professor of health research and policy and epidemiology at Stanford University School of Medicine, and is "off to a running start," according to her faculty mentor, Alice Whittemore, a Stanford professor of epidemiology and biostatistics.

Sieh focuses on the genetic epidemiology of ovarian and prostate cancers. Ovarian cancer, for instance, is rare, and isn't usually detected until the later stages. Several new screening technologies in the pipeline may help detect ovarian cancer in earlier—and potentially more treatable—stages, but "in order to validate these technologies and know that they work, we need to know who, from genetic components and environmental factors, is likely to be at an increased risk," Whittemore says. "Weiva is trying to do that."

With prostate cancer, epidemiologists face a different problem. Although the cancer is common, it often isn't fatal. The problem is identifying which men may develop more aggressive forms of the disease. Sieh's work looks at which genes might predict risk, progression, outcome and response to treatment in these and other cancers.

At this early stage in her career, Sieh is writing a lot of grant applications in addition to doing her research, which gives her a new appreciation of her Westinghouse mentor's generosity. "It's hard enough to find the time for college students or graduate students," she says. "It's extraordinary that she took time out to mentor a high school student."

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