School of Medicine

Behrens Fellow Katrina Evans Looks to the Brain for New Perspectives on Breast Cancer

Katrina Evans
Behrens Fellow Katrina Evans looks to the brain for breast cancer insights

It’s not unusual to find Katrina Evans in the lab of her mentor, Devon Lawson, engaged in an experiment designed to reveal some new detail in the relationship between breast cancer metastases and inflammatory response in the brain.

Evans is a UCI School of Medicine doctoral student and a Stanley Behrens Fellow in Medicine. Her research explores the implications of similarities between inflammation associated with neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's and Huntington’s Disease and the inflammation found in breast cancer metastasis.

Lawson, a UCI School of Medicine assistant professor of physiology and biophysics says, “Katrina has played a major role in masterminding and developing her own research project, which is uncommon for junior trainees and illustrates her natural aptitude for science. “

Using single-cell RNA sequencing technology and immunological techniques, Evans has found that microglia, the resident immune cells of the brain respond to breast cancer metastasis, increasing production of proteins necessary for recruiting and modulating the function of T cells.

Evans believes this finding could lead to insights that ultimately help to prevent tumors in the brain.

Evans’s scientific curiosity began at a young age.

Evans credits her parents, both biology researchers, for her fascination with science. She has followed in their footsteps.

Evans earned a bachelor of science degree in Cell and Developmental Biology from California State University, Fullerton. As an undergraduate, she developed a special interest in immunology, physiology and cancer biology. The knowledge proved useful to her as a Howard Hughes Medical Institute research fellow investigating receptor channels lysosomal storage disease.

“[These courses] taught me the beauty in biological structures, and how these structures can go awry,” Evans says.

Her undergraduate mentor encouraged to share her passion for science with high school students. It didn’t take much convincing.

“Learning about science at a young age and having [my parents] break complex ideas down ...made me enthusiastic about teaching,” says Lawson.

She obtained teaching credential from UCI School of Education, then went on to teach biology at an Orange County high school. Students connected with her. They engaged in her journal club discussions and labs that mirrored her work as an undergraduate researcher. 

As much as she loved teaching, however, Evans says, “I wanted to learn about what is not known, and ... figure that out.”

So, she returned to UCI for doctoral training. 

“I love teaching; I love students. I also love research. The two go hand in hand. I realized if I went into academic research, I wouldn’t have to choose.” 

Evans has indeed found ways to do both. She takes time from research activities to mentor undergraduate students in the lab. She also trains high school students through the Cancer Research Institute Youth Science Fellows program.

When Research Meets the Community

Connecting the science of breast cancer to people living with the disease is also a must for Evans.

“This exposure helps with our motivation. These are real people. It is easy to be in a lab and be abstract, but these activities push me to be cognizant that this is not just a problem isolated in a lab,” she says. 

She participates on a multidisciplinary team for breast cancer research at the UCI Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center. This Disease-Oriented Team, as it is called, collaborates to move discoveries toward clinical trials. Evans also meets with clinicians and fellow researchers to discuss protocols and hurdles associated with breast cancer treatment. 

Evans attends community education seminars hosted by UCI in collaboration with Susan G. Komen Orange County, along with fellow lab members. They talk with patients about their treatment and experiences with breast cancer. 

Evans recently added tumor board meetings to her busy schedule. There, she hears UCI clinicians discuss patient care. 

Motivation to Move Forward
Evans’ dedicated pursuit of promising research and passion for engaging the next generation of scientists led to her recognition as the third Stanley Behrens Fellow in Medicine. She impressed the selection committee, which included namesake and nonagenarian Mr. Stanley Behrens.

The Stanley Behrens Fellows in Medicine Program supports outstanding doctoral students engaged in novel translational research with the potential to advance human well-being or otherwise make a significant impact in the community. The fellowship, Evans says, provides much-needed support to sustain her research at UCI. It also supports her attendance at research conferences, where she finds a community of scholars and gain insights from other researchers to inform her own investigation.