The Butterfly Effect

markey's leader airport


Leadership at the Markey Cancer Center is a culture that extends from the research lab to the clinic, from bench to bedside so to speak. This is in large part due to the efforts of Mark Evers, M.D., to attract a group of driven and devoted individuals who wanted to contribute to something much larger than themselves. The result was a team that achieved National Cancer Institute (NCI) Comprehensive Cancer Center designation in 2023 and now has its sights set on even bigger achievements for Kentucky’s future.

A Hurricane Changes Everything

When Hurricane Ike struck the Texas coast in September 2008, it had devastating effects. The University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) in Galveston, where Dr. Evers worked, struggled to recover. Eventually, he sought a new role at Markey, and a group of UTMB faculty and staff joined him. They left Texas for their own personal reasons, but all of them came to Kentucky with a mission to grow Markey and make a difference for the Commonwealth’s people.

Heidi L. Weiss, Ph.D., was part of the group that moved from Texas. She is now the associate director for Shared Resources and director of the Biostatistics and Bioinformatics Shared Resource Facility. “I didn’t plan to move to Kentucky, but with a natural disaster you cannot plan for anything,” said Weiss. “I believed I had a lot to contribute. When bad things happen, something good can come out of it.”

The opportunity to build the research infrastructure for the cancer center is what attracted Weiss to Markey. “I came to Markey to develop a biostatistics group, but I had the opportunity to expand the role. It allowed me to set the tone for what our shared resource facilities should be,” she said. “We provide the equipment, technical expertise, and services so that our members can execute their research, whether it’s clinical trials or laboratory experiments. We cover the entire spectrum of the translational continuum.”

For Tianyan Gao, Ph.D., associate director for basic research at Markey, it was an easy decision to come to UK. “I was very impressed by what was already available on campus at the time,” said Gao. She has built a basic science research program at Markey focused on the role of obesity and other mechanisms in colon cancer and ways to block the growth of tumors.

“Obesity is a major risk factor for colon cancer and other cancers, and Kentucky has some of the highest rates of colon cancer in the nation,” Gao noted. “It’s an important challenge we need to address. I think it will have a major impact in the long term for cancer patients in Kentucky.”

David Gosky, M.B.A., M.A., had worked with Dr. Evers for six years at UTMB and relished the opportunity to help Markey build toward its initial NCI designation. Gosky served as associate director for administration at Markey from 2009 to 2018 and is now the executive director of administration at The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center.

He brought with him a wealth of experience from UTMB’s own desire for NCI status. “I think the reason that I was helpful and comfortable at Markey is that I was well integrated into the NCI community via a couple of organizations, and so I brought the ability to understand the guidelines,” said Gosky.

markey leaders
Members of the Markey leadership team have put roots down in Kentucky to support the cancer center’s vision.

New Faces at Markey

After his arrival at Markey, Dr. Evers continued to add to the cancer center’s roster of experts and researchers, recruiting people who have significantly impacted patient care and research. Like those who came from Texas, these people were inspired by the mission and vision to make a difference in Kentucky.

Lowell B. Anthony, M.D., FACP, chief of the Division of Medical Oncology and co-director of the Radiopharmaceutical Therapy Program, arrived at UK two years after Dr. Evers. Dr. Anthony was working at Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center in New Orleans in fall 2010, when he saw a press release about a new neuroendocrine tumor clinic at UK and knew he wanted to be a part of it. “It took two hurricanes to get us together,” said Dr. Anthony, who had decided to leave the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina.

Dr. Anthony has established neuroendocrine and gastrointestinal clinical trials programs at Markey, recruiting and training physicians and staff. “I can say that Markey exceeded my expectations, but at the same time, my expectations were pretty high,” he said.

Pamela Hull, Ph.D., associate director for population science and community impact at Markey Cancer Center, oversees cancer prevention and control research as well as community outreach and engagement. She chose Markey because of its strong existing community engagement structure, including the Kentucky Cancer Program and Kentucky Cancer Consortium, and the cancer center’s commitment to addressing health equity.

“What really drives me in my work every day, the reason I get up every day and I’m excited to go to work, is that I want to work with our team and our partners to make a big impact in the community.”

Pamela Hull, Ph.D.

Biochemist Xiaoqi Liu, Ph.D., is the chair of the Department of Toxicology and Cancer Biology. He chose the University of Kentucky because of its highly respected medical school and because of the critical role his department plays in the overall success of the cancer center. “Kentucky has a high mortality rate compared to other states across the country,” said Liu, who is also the Lucille P. Markey Endowed Chair in Oncology Research.

When Liu arrived at UK in 2018, he came with a focus on research that involves the molecular mechanisms that cause cancer; specifically, an enzyme known as Polo-like kinase 1, which plays a central role in controlling cell division. “Cancer is a particular issue for this state and we have to address it.”

Jill Kolesar, PharmD, co-leader of the Translational Oncology Research Program, joined Markey in 2016 because of the collegiality and the clear mission to get comprehensive status. “For me, it was really exciting to be part of the mission to get comprehensive status,” she said, noting the success of the translational working groups that bring together clinicians, basic scientists, and epidemiologists to bridge the gap from discoveries to trials and outreach.

For Kentucky

Markey’s reach has extended far beyond its physical doors in Lexington and into all corners of the Commonwealth and beyond. “There’s been exciting progress in reducing the burden of colorectal and lung cancer in Kentucky in the last decade, along with increased HPV vaccination and reduced smoking rates,” said Hull. “The goal now is to no longer be the state with the highest cancer incidence and mortality rates in the country.”

Markey’s success is a university-wide effort, with support from the highest levels. That support is coupled with Dr. Evers’ approach to working with others, leading by example and building bridges to work across the organization. This approach achieves results, whether improving patient outcomes, securing grant funding or publishing a paper. “There’s a sense that we’re in this together,” said Weiss.

With such a strong network of leaders rallying together, Markey is making grand strides in being a catalyst for change in the Commonwealth. “The future is as exciting as it could be for the citizens of Kentucky,” said Dr. Anthony.

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