Chicago, IL || February 2017 - - Several years ago, when Rolfe Foundation fellow Elizabeth Poli was attending college at the University of Madison, she spent a summer volunteering as a counselor at One Step at a Time Camp. A year-round organization whose mission is to provide summer camp experiences for children diagnosed with cancer, One Step at a Time offers fun, fellowship, and fresh air while allowing tykes and teens the opportunity to reclaim their lives. For Dr. Poli, it was the beginning of her life in medicine.
“Working with children who were dealing with so much medication and had gone through so much pain was beyond profound,” she explains. “The desire to help them and be of service, really - it lit something in me.”
From the outside, it would appear that desire lit a forest fire. Following graduation from Madison, Dr. Poli not only attended the University of Chicago’s Pritzker School of Medicine, but she also found time amidst a full course load to administer free glaucoma screenings around Chicago with Student Sight Savers, work with Mission Nutrition to educate south-side middle school students about the value of eating well, and complete a Howard Hughes Medical Institute fellowship in which she studied the epigenetic regulation of breast cancer.
In conversation, her commitment to work is immediately evident, and it’s hardly shocking that when asked how she likes to relax, Dr. Poli’s enthusiastic answer is, “I like to run marathons!”
“We have a huge need for young, energetic physicians like Elizabeth. We need the ranks of medical professionals combatting pancreatic cancer to grow. The more expertise we can help develop in the lab and in treatment, the more we impact the future of the disease.” - Jim Rolfe
“We have a huge need for young, energetic physicians like Elizabeth,” says Rolfe Foundation Board President Jim Rolfe. “We need the ranks of medical professionals combatting pancreatic cancer to grow. The more expertise we can help develop in the lab and in treatment, the more we impact the future of the disease.”
Now a Resident, Dr. Poli divides her time between research in Dr. Ralph Weichselbaum’s lab reviewing surgical cases and fulfilling varying clinical responsibilities.
Employing animal and cell culture models, Dr. Poli and her colleagues run experiments aimed at shrinking tumors, and conduct investigations into immune responses, which can offer clues for both early detection and treatment plans.
She continues the work of previous Foundation fellows Drs. Jukes Namm and Kinga Skowron, investigators who authored or co-authored 12 peer-reviewed papers between them, worked to improve pancreatic cancer modeling methods, and advanced understanding of the stroma (the surrounding tissue in which a tumor grows). Understanding the microenvironment will be a crucial step in unraveling the complexity of early detection.
She is eager to meet the high standards they established for the Fellowship, and to learn from mentors like Dr. Weichselbaum and Mitchell Posner, MD, chief of surgical oncology.
It is challenging, rigorous work that requires patience and discipline. And every now and then, you get nipped by a sharp-toothed mouse. In other words: it is another marathon Dr. Poli relishes running.
“I think it’s really exciting,” she muses. “The research that goes into building strategies to combat difficult-to-treat diseases like pancreatic cancer is incredibly important, and it’s gratifying to work at a lab of this caliber, where the progress we see has the ability to move so quickly from bench to bedside and potentially have an immediate impact on a patient’s care.”
And patient care is a particular passion of Dr. Poli’s. Though she initially planned on pursuing a Ph.D. and enjoying a career in research, during a rotation in her third year of medical school she assisted an attending surgical oncologist at the University of Chicago, and was inspired to chase a more hands-on approach to medicine as a surgical oncologist.
"I know that every lesson I learn at the bench (that Rolfe is helping enable) will make me a better surgeon. The more I learn here about what a patient is facing, during residency, doing research – it means I’ll have that much more ammunition to bring to the fight.” - Dr. Poli
“Surgery is the front lines,” she says animatedly. “My time (in the Oncology Division) brought me back to my summer as a camp counselor. Seeing people who are sick, who are going through the most trying of times – as a surgeon, I’ll have the ability to directly help them.”
For now, however, she’s dedicated to research, and is putting up with being bitten by mice. She's also preparing to run in her next marathon and eager to sign up for her first DASH for Detection.
“I’m beyond appreciative of the opportunity to be a Rolfe fellow,” asserts Dr. Poli. “It’s an exceptional opportunity to pursue progress, and I know that every lesson I learn at the bench (that Rolfe is helping enable) will make me a better surgeon. As a surgical oncologist, you are playing a huge role in a patient’s cancer battle. The more I learn here about what a patient is facing, during residency, doing research – it means I’ll have that much more ammunition to bring to the fight.”
Published: February 10th, 2017.
This article also appears as part of the Rolfe Pancreatic Cancer Foundation’s
electronic newsletter, The Catalyst (Vol. 4, February 2015 – The New Chapter issue).
To read more dispatches from The Catalyst, please click the links below.