By Tyra Haag
Amber MacDonald grew up playing sports and thought she wanted to be a personal trainer. But her father’s terminal cancer diagnosis when she was 15 changed the course of her
MacDonald, who earned her master’s degree in molecular nutrition in May, has spent the past three years researching the link between nutrition and cancer.
Though she’s walked the graduation stage twice before without her father in attendance, this time, she’ll be receiving a degree inspired by his cancer journey.
“I was devastated when my father was diagnosed with colorectal cancer. It was the most difficult time of my life witnessing the strongest man I know deteriorate right in front of me, and there was nothing I could do about it,” she said.
MacDonald grew up the youngest of four children in Beckley, West Virginia, a small city in the heart of Appalachia and coal mining country.
“Being the youngest with three older brothers, I was the model of a daddy’s girl,” she said. “I grew up on the baseball fields and was always interested in health and fitness.”
MacDonald’s father passed away when he was 53, a few months before her 18th birthday and senior year of high school. Her dad asked her to choose a college close to home, which she did.
MacDonald moved 50 miles south and attended Bluefield College in Virginia on a softball and cross-country scholarship. She earned her bachelor’s in exercise science in 2012, then took a year off to substitute teach and coach softball at Woodrow Wilson High School, her alma mater. She needed the time to figure out what she wanted to do next, and relied on her mom for advice.
“I have an amazing mother who always encouraged me,” said MacDonald. “She taught me an education is something no one can take away from you.”
From Laces to a Lab Coat
“In college I became more interested in diet and cancer than fitness,” said MacDonald. “During my senior year, I had to write a literature review on any topic so I chose to investigate alternative treatments for cancer. The more I read, the more fascinated I became with the idea that diet can help treat this disease, but I didn’t know how to put those two interests together.”
MacDonald researched a few programs, but after meeting with UT’s department head of nutrition she knew she’d found the right place.
“Dr. Jay Whelan gave me his business card. It said, ‘Laboratory for Cancer Research’ on it, and I was star-struck,” she said. “I was offered a graduate assistantship. It felt like a dream come true.”
She enrolled at UT in January 2014.
“Although I was an honors student in undergrad, I had no research experience and walking into a lab was like walking into another world. Everyone was speaking a research language I didn’t understand,” said MacDonald. “It wasn’t an easy transition, but it was the first time I could put my passion for diet and cancer into action. I was surrounded with the right people to help me learn, who challenged me to succeed.”
She spent the first year of grad school taking required courses and learning research methods. She then began her own project—looking at how a combination of herbal extracts called Zyflamend deprives prostate cancer of the nutrients it needs to grow.
“Research is 90 percent failure and 10 percent success,” said Whelan. “You always hope the 10 percent comes first. Some students are deterred by this, but not Amber.”
Whelan said MacDonald has been a determined graduate student who isn’t afraid to fail or learn new things.
“Amber’s research explores how herbal extracts have anticancer properties at the molecular level,” he said. “We know these supplements help prevent cancer growth, but the question is, how do they work?
“Wouldn’t it be wonderful to prove there’s a noninvasive way to enhance the effectiveness of treatment to make the cancer stay in remission or stop moving from one tissue to the next?
This is the question Amber’s research is trying to answer.”
Whelan said science is a tedious process, but successful researchers are the ones who stick with it. And MacDonald has stuck with it.
“She can’t wait to get in the lab and do the next experiment to create new discoveries. Her research could have a positive impact on lives in the future. That’s what this university is all about.”
MacDonald is now finishing up her first manuscript to submit for publication. It will be her fourth publication.
She’s also presented her research at four conferences in the past year. One researcher in Chicago reached out to her about collaborating on an experiment.
A Future in Medicine
After graduation, MacDonald, now 27, will return to Bluefield College to teach for a year and study for the Medical College Admissions Test. She plans to enroll in medical school in the fall of 2018 to study osteopathic medicine.
“It’s rare for students to go to medical school with a background in research, but I feel prepared,” said MacDonald. “The University of Tennessee completely transformed the way I think with an impact that will last the rest of my life.
“One of my favorite quotes is from Steve Jobs—‘The journey is the reward.’ Getting this degree isn’t the reward. It’s all the dirt and struggle I went through that really is the heart of my accomplishments. If it wasn’t for my dad’s experience, I wouldn’t be here today. I know he would be so proud.”
Photos by Kellie Crye Ward