Twenty Years of Colby Students and Cancer Research

Alumni7 MIN READ

Pediatric oncologist Dr. Loren Walensky isn’t a Colby alum, but since 2005 he’s hosted students and young alumni in his award-winning Dana-Farber lab

Dr. Loren Walensky works with Tommy DeAngelo ’22, a research technician at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. (Photo by Ashley L. Conti)
By Kayla Voigt '14
March 26, 2024

Meeting someone like Dr. Loren Walensky could convince you that time travel exists. Not only is he a resident physician in Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center’s Department of Pediatric Oncology, but he also runs the Walensky Lab, a research lab focusing on understanding cancer development and resistance to treatment.

In his “spare time,” he’s also a professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and the program director for the joint Harvard/MIT’s M.D.-Ph.D. Program, which is dedicated to training the next generation of premier and diverse physician-scientist leaders.

With all of this on his plate, he still manages to take a Colby student or two under his wing each year, funded by the Linde Packman Lab for Biosciences Innovation. He isn’t a Colby graduate—he graduated from Princeton University as valedictorian, and later from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, where he earned his M.D. and Ph.D.—but you could think of him instead as a guardian angel for Colby’s biochemistry students. In 2023 Colby awarded Walensky an honorary degree to celebrate not only his achievements as a scientist but his tremendous positive impact on the Colby community.

Since 2005 he’s hosted 18 Colby students and young alumni as research technicians or administrative assistants. “I’ve had the whole range of Colby students that have gone on to become M.D.s, Ph.D.s, nurse practitioners, physician assistants, you name it. They come to explore what they want to be,” he said. “Typically, they stay for two years, and in that time they can simulate what it’s like to be a grad student, and then I also bring them with me to the hospital to do rounds. Some gravitate toward one or the other, or both. Then it’s my job to help them achieve those dreams. It’s incredibly rewarding.”

Many of those students have gone on to make their mark on the field of oncology, like radiation oncologist Dr. Kenneth Pitter ’05, who holds an M.D. and Ph.D. and who now leads his own lab at The Ohio State University studying chemoresistance in pancreatic cancer. “There just aren’t enough nice things to say about Loren,” said Pitter. “Just having someone so invested in me made all the difference in the world, and I 100 percent wouldn’t have this job today if I hadn’t had the chance to work with him.”

Since 2005 Dr. Loren Walensky has hosted 18 Colby students and young alumni as research technicians or administrative assistants in his lab. (Photo by Ashley L. Conti)

The Colby connection

This serendipitous Colby partnership began in 2005, when Walensky took over running the lab from mentor and friend Dr. Stanley Korsmeyer, who had died from lung cancer. Several Colby students had worked in the lab, and when it came time to hire someone new, Walensky knew Colby students could deliver.

“At that point, I had been in the lab for four years and [Korsmeyer] was like an academic father figure for me,” said Walensky. “It was a very difficult time for all of us, and in the midst of this profound sadness, in walks Ken Pitter, an absolute ray of sunshine. I hired him immediately.”

Pitter was one of the first Colby students in the lab, alongside Joel Morash ’05. Together, the three built the foundations of what is now one of the most famous oncology labs in the country.

Dr. Kenneth Pitter ’05, a radiation oncologist, works in his lab at The Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio. Pitter worked in Walensky’s lab as a Colby student. (Photo by Maddie McGarvey)

“Coming out of Colby, I was still figuring out what I wanted to do. I didn’t know what an M.D.-Ph.D. really was,” said Pitter. “Working with Loren, I got to see what it was like to be a physician and a scientist at the same time. He was very open to me shadowing, volunteering, going to boards, and doing everything I needed to make sure I could apply to graduate school successfully.”

Walensky also hosted two students over the summer last year, Saathvika Diviti ’25 and Anna Pavlova ’24. “I’ve spent two summers now in the lab, and I will be forever grateful to Colby for connecting me with Dr. Walensky,” said Pavlova, who is also a Pulver Science Scholar. “This experience, along with my time at Colby, has been an incredible opportunity to see firsthand the collaborative and impactful work that happens in pursuit of scientific knowledge,” 

The chemistry and classical civilizations double major plans to take a few years working as a lab technician before applying to medical school or for an M.D.-Ph.D. “Initially, my dream was to be a doctor, but doing research extensively these past few summers has made me more passionate about combining research into my future career plans,” she said. “I’ve absolutely loved my time at the lab and hope I get a chance to continue working in that setting.”

Part of how Walensky structures his lab is through pairing lab technicians with Ph.D. students or postdoctoral fellows so they’re not stuck just doing the mundane, repetitive tasks that go along with an entry-level position. “My approach is to connect them with a daily mentor in the lab so they feel like they have their own project and can learn how to be independent in their scientific pursuit,” said Walensky. “That’s when the science gets fun.”

Saathvika Diviti ’25, a biology major and Pulver Science Scholar, spent last summer in the Walensky Lab. (Photo by Ashley L. Conti)

It’s this kind of mentorship that gives budding scientists like Pavlova a chance to put their academic training to hands-on use. “The first summer I worked very closely with my postdoc mentor, and it was a huge learning curve for me,” said Pavlova. “I got to learn a ton of new methods, like protein purification, liposomal release assays, and Western blots that I didn’t have a lot of experience with. By the end of the first summer, I was doing them myself, and it really helped my confidence.”

Walensky said he is grateful for his relationship with Colby, and receiving the honorary degree last year “was a wonderful touchtone from all the years I’ve been involved—and a true honor. But the real reward is seeing where each student ends up. It’s been 20 years in the lab, and I’m always amazed to see where such talented students from Colby go.”