Careers Blog Home > Lab/Life Parallels: Connecting a Childhood Dream, Career Journey & Cancer Triumph

Lab/Life Parallels: Connecting a Childhood Dream, Career Journey & Cancer Triumph

Tristen, Assay Development Senior Scientist

The journey that led me to my career in genomic cancer research unraveled like a winding road, marked by unexpected connections between my professional and personal life. It began with my childhood fascination with forensic science, sparked by Patricia Cornwell’s crime fiction novels. The first connection, a full-circle moment: Cornwell herself came to tour the office of my very first job in science. I’m grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the field I have dreamt about since I was a kid, for the ways it has shaped my life in return and for the impact we make in cancer care at Foundation Medicine. 

Early on, I was inspired by Cornwell’s main character to become a medical examiner, but college and graduate school broadened my interests within forensic science instead. In 2005, after earning my master’s degree, my first job was as a forensic DNA analyst at the Chief Medical Examiner’s Office in New York City. I performed DNA testing for the purpose of body identification, forensic paternity and kinship analysis of remains from the devastating attacks on 9/11. This job also led me to meet my husband, who volunteered to sift through the rubble of the World Trade Center, and I volunteered to work on data review for identification of the remains that were found — responsibilities that we approached with a deep sense of honor and dedication. These experiences are important chapters in our careers that we will never forget. Our shared experience of contributing to such meaningful and moving work created a common interest in DNA analysis which led us on parallel career paths. My husband and I decided to move to Boston together to pursue them. In our new city, I transitioned into research with an interest in learning more about standard operating procedures and how to best improve them. Surprisingly similar to lab operations, the strict regulations and methodologies of my work at the medical examiner's office prepared me well for my future in genomic research.  

 

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I held two other research positions before finding my way to Foundation Medicine in 2018. I had heard good things about the company, but I first came across them myself at a career fair where I instantly connected with the assay development team. On that day, I got a strong sense of the employees’ dedication, passion and excitement about leading innovation in cancer care. My first impression of the company has remained accurate throughout my years here. Commitment to our mission of transforming cancer care is the thread that connects us all and allows us to collaborate so well — supporting each other in meeting tight deadlines and continually growing together. I started out as a scientist, then scientist II and am currently a senior scientist in assay development. An aspect of my work that I had never experienced before joining Foundation Medicine is the ability to see how it directly impacts the guidance of patient care on a daily basis. From experimental design to execution and data analysis, I’m hands-on throughout the entire process. Having such an involved role on a team that is constantly at the forefront of cancer research is an incredible thing to be a part of.  

 

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I have always had a passion for our patients, but my perspective shifted suddenly when I, very unexpectedly, became a patient myself. In 2020, I got a CT scan to determine the cause of pain I had been having on my right side and as an incidental finding, a tumor was spotted on my left kidney. My surgery to have it removed was quickly scheduled for a couple of months later. After the surgery, the tumor was confirmed to be renal cell carcinoma — the same disease I had been examining at work during those months between my diagnosis and surgery. This whole experience was surreal and connected me to our patients even further. I got Foundation Medicine’s biomarker testing done and discovered I had a mutation that could be germline and was recommended further testing. It was determined that my cancer was a random occurrence, not a germline mutation. I had been worrying about what this would mean for my children, so I was thankful for this peace of mind during such a mentally challenging time.  

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My personal experience with cancer has given me a new outlook on the work we do at Foundation Medicine. As someone who has undergone intense post-cancer monitoring (first every three months, then six, now yearly and moving quickly to every five years), I have a strong appreciation for the research my teammates are doing on the projects focused on less invasive monitoring approaches. I’m grateful that my career journey brought me to genomic cancer research, and I take pride in the work we do, knowing firsthand the positive impact it can make on a patient’s treatment journey.  

 

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