Taking root and branching off
Scholarship nurtures graduate students and inspires a new generation of giving
Stony precipices and wooded slopes swell out of the rocky landscape in the rural village in Guizhou, China, where Yanhong Zhou, PhD ’20, grew up. The view is breathtaking, but this sparse, rugged terrain makes it difficult to cultivate much—whether crops, livestock, or people. Despite the challenges, families work together to harvest corn and nurture dreams, while rapid development continues to improve living conditions for all.
“Many parents in our village had to earn a living in a faraway city, leaving their children to work on the farms under the supervision of their grandparents,” she says. “Growing up, I always dreamed of doing something to improve the lives of my family and neighbors.”
In 2011, Yanhong left China with her husband to pursue her dream in the United States. She started a graduate program in recreation, parks, and tourism resources at West Virginia University, but she quickly discovered a passion in statistics after taking a couple of courses. Unable to choose between the two, she eventually earned a master’s degree in each discipline.
When her husband’s job prompted a move to Houston, Yanhong began researching how she could further her education in statistics and launch a career in this new city. With a three-year-old child at home, the couple also wanted to keep their growing family together.
“I learned the Texas Medical Center was the largest of its kind in the world, and that The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center was among the best cancer centers,” she says. “When I read about the Quantitative Sciences program at MD Anderson UTHealth Graduate School, I knew it was where I wanted to pursue my dream.”
It was the only PhD program Yanhong applied to, and she was accepted in 2016. Early in her studies, she found two exceptional faculty mentors in J. Jack Lee, DDS, PhD, and Ying Yuan, PhD, who hold primary appointments in the Department of Biostatistics at MD Anderson. Under their tutelage, Yanhong worked to develop adaptive designs and software for early-phase clinical trials and outline a path for her future.
“As a first-generation graduate student, I found it difficult to even envision what my career path might look like before joining MD Anderson UTHealth Graduate School,” says Yanhong. “But my time there was a life-changing period for me, and it was largely thanks to Dr. Lee and Dr. Yuan, who taught me how to conduct rigorous research and prepared me for a successful future career.”
In 2019, Yanhong received the Investing in Student Futures Scholarship, an endowed award established by Priscilla Saunders, PhD, in memory of her husband and beloved MD Anderson UTHealth Graduate School faculty member, Grady F. Saunders, PhD. The scholarship helps advance the work of students who are conducting vital research with the potential to advance the field of biomedical science by providing financial assistance to enable them to pursue their dreams.
“Earning this scholarship was a defining moment of my time at the school, and it reinforced my belief that anything is possible through hard work,” says Yanhong. “With a child at home, it provided much-needed financial assistance to help me commit to my research.”
Doctorate students at MD Anderson UTHealth Graduate School receive graduate research assistantships, which cover tuition, fees, and benefits, for 16 months. Afterward, students earn support from their faculty advisors through traineeships and fellowships. Scholarships help supplement these stipends and provide students with the financial freedom to cover other expenses or pursue interests or opportunities they otherwise could not afford.
With support from the Investing in Student Futures Scholarship, Yanhong pursued her dream of improving lives in her village in Guizhou. Using a portion of the funds, she distributed her own scholarships to more than 20 schoolchildren in her home village who showed academic promise and needed financial assistance.
“I know the challenges these children face, and I wanted to encourage them to continue pursuing their dreams,” says Yanhong. “Seeing the impact the Investing in Student Futures Scholarship made on me, and in turn, the impact it made on those children, taught me the power of giving.”
In 2021, Yanhong launched her career designing clinical trials for new cancer therapies. Thankful for her experiences at MD Anderson UTHealth Graduate School and the support she received through the scholarship, she decided to establish her own endowed scholarship at the school with help from her company’s matching gift program.
“I hope my gift makes a difference in someone’s life the way donors to the Investing in Student Futures Scholarship made a difference in my life,” she says.
Since 2013, the Investing in Student Futures Scholarship has been awarded to 14 graduate students like Yanhong, with as many as three recipients per year.
The 2021 recipient, Anh “Kim” Trinh Nguyen, a PhD student in the lab of Anne-Marie Krachler, PhD, at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston, is researching how bacteria adhere to tissues in the gut and infect their hosts, which could lead to new ways to prevent and treat bacterial infections and chronic conditions like inflammatory bowel disease.
“Scholarships inspire students to be innovative and pursue excellence,” says Kim. “By helping me to focus more on research and less on finances, the Investing in Student Futures Scholarship has created new opportunities for me and enabled me to think outside the box.”
One of Kim’s proudest accomplishments at MD Anderson UTHealth Graduate School is sparking a collaborative project between the Krachler Lab at UTHealth Houston and a lab at MD Anderson. Together, the teams are investigating how cell division and death in epithelial tissue in the gut may drive bacterial infections like E. coli.
The ripple effect of the Investing in Student Futures Scholarship has only grown since the beginning of Many Faces. One Mission. in 2015, with 31 gifts from 19 donors, including a significant commitment from alumna Dianne K. Hammond, PhD ’89, and her husband Jim.
Like Dianne, many supporters of the scholarship are alumni who want to honor the memory of an esteemed faculty member and support the next generation of biomedical scientists. “Contributing to this endowment each year is a way for me to extend Dr. Saunders' legacy and give thanks for the opportunities he gave me,” says Stephen Hewitt, MD ’96, PhD ’95.
Just as corn sprouts from the mountains of Guizhou, opportunities often bloom where seeds are planted. Gifts in support of the Investing in Student Futures Scholarship or other scholarships enable MD Anderson UTHealth Graduate School to attract extraordinary students like Yanhong and Kim and empower them to branch out in pursuit of their dreams.
“Scholarships at MD Anderson UTHealth Graduate School create opportunities for our graduate students to acquire the passion to demystify the unknown and the ability to transform discovery into lifesaving solutions," says Michael R. Blackburn, PhD, Dean of the school. "This sends a ripple through our communities, as our students go on to make major impacts on the treatment of diseases and improve lives.”