UC research fellow receives Fulbright Award

Grant will fund research at Netherlands Cancer Institute in fall

The University of Cincinnati’s Amber Amparo has a career goal to become a physician scientist, but she is not waiting until she earns her doctoral degrees to make an impact in her community and to the field of cancer research. 

Amparo, a research fellow in Andrew Waters’ lab at UC, has been chosen for a Fulbright Award to conduct research at the Netherlands Cancer Institute this fall, the next step on a career journey that began when she was young. 

Career passion fueled by early inspiration

Amber Amparo, a research associate in Dr. Andrew Waters' lab, has been awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to do cancer research in the Netherlands in the fall.

Amber Amparo. Photo/Andrew Higley/UC Marketing + Brand.

Amparo said she was inspired by her grandmothers to pursue medicine as a career. When she was 8 years old, her maternal grandmother passed away from colorectal cancer. 

“At that time, seeing such a strong woman who was one out of 11 children in Managua, Nicaragua, coming to the U.S., bringing family over, earning her PhD — the strongest woman I know deteriorating was definitely a challenge for me to understand and process,” Amparo said. 

Soon after, Amparo’s paternal grandmother had a stroke that paralyzed her left side and caused significant issues with her speech. 

“Seeing these strong matriarchs of my family succumb to the vulnerable impairments on the human body that can happen in an instant left me with a lot of questions that I couldn’t articulate, much less answer,” she said. “But those questions turned into curiosity, which ignited my passion for exploring the natural world, specifically the human body.” 

In high school, Amparo raised $25,000 for The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society through the Student Visionaries of the Year campaign. As an undergraduate student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC), she served local rural communities as an EMT and conducted research in Channing Der’s pancreatic cancer laboratory. 

Amparo has continued to study pancreatic cancer in Waters’ lab. The two met while Waters was a postdoctoral researcher in Der’s lab at UNC and reconnected as Amparo was looking for opportunities to gain experience before applying to dual MD/PhD programs. 

“Pancreatic cancer is one of the deadliest cancers, projected to be the second-leading cause of cancer-related death by 2030, and research laboratories felt like the place for me to use my talents to develop new skills and become engrossed in the science that was bringing hope to patients,” Amparo said. “I’m excited for the opportunity to integrate basic science research with the patient populations that I serve, and I intend to stay within cancer research in my future career.” 

Amber Amparo, a research associate in Dr. Andrew Waters' lab, has been awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to do cancer research in the Netherlands in the fall.

Amber Amparo, left, said the mentorship of Andrew Waters, right, and other faculty members has helped her grow as a researcher. Photo/Andrew Higley/UC Marketing + Brand.

UC experience

In her current role, Amparo primarily conducts wet lab work, preparing and testing various cell samples as the lab looks at resistance mechanisms to current pancreatic cancer treatments.  

“It’s been a completely different experience than anything I’ve had before,” she said. “Being a student and doing part-time research is far different than doing full-time research, and Dr. Waters has been so attentive as a mentor. Having those one-on-one opportunities with him has really shaped me as a young scientist because I can have frequent communication and get immediate feedback, and his guidance has helped me learn a lot on how to think like a scientist and grow as a young scientist.” 

Waters said it has been an honor to have Amparo work in the lab, noting her adaptability and ability to multitask on various experiments at once. She has also prioritized sharing her work to the broader community, including poster and oral presentations at conferences and co-authoring a manuscript recently published in the journal Nature. 

“Amber’s growth in her time at UC, in my opinion, has been exponential, and she makes smart decisions in the lab,” said Waters, PhD, University of Cincinnati Cancer Center researcher and assistant professor in the Department of Surgery in UC’s College of Medicine.  

Amparo has also collaborated with other pancreatic cancer research teams and shadowed physicians, including Syed Ahmad, Davendra Sohal and Jordan Kharofa, while at UC. 

I just know it’s going to be an amazing experience and that my time here at UC has really prepared me to feel confident in making the most of it.

Amber Amparo

“That clinical experience has helped me back in the lab, and I can share that information from the lab about what's happening at the clinic, and vice versa,” she said. “Dr. Ahmad has been super supportive in all of my academic endeavors, and I really appreciate the opportunities he’s had connecting me to other clinicians. And Dr. David Gerber has been great too, in supporting me in my achievements and providing feedback.” 

In addition to her lab work and shadowing physicians, Amparo volunteers as a friend and advocate for patients and plays violin with the University of Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. Her passion and commitment to her community and to pushing the field of research forward to improve patient outcomes set her up well for a career as a physician scientist, Waters said. 

“Amber has shown qualities throughout her time at UC that make me think she will be in that select few that are elite physicians and elite scientists at the same time, and it is these qualities that give me confidence she will be highly successful as a Fulbright Grantee and go on to become a phenomenal physician scientist,” Waters said.  

Progress through international collaboration

The Fulbright U.S. Student Program provides funding for students and young professionals to further their careers by conducting research, completing graduate-level study or teaching English in countries around the world.  

“For those with aspirations to attend medical school, the Fulbright Award is without a doubt the most prestigious award one can receive,” Waters said.  

As a Fulbright Grantee, Amparo will spend nine months conducting research in the lab of Rene Bernards at the Netherlands Cancer Institute. Specifically, she will study how treatment strategies developed in Bernards’ lab can be applied to pediatric neuroblastomas, a cancer that forms in nerve cells. 

Amparo said she was interested in the Fulbright program because she loves a challenge and wanted to gain experience in the international collaboration that is needed to move science forward. The Bernards lab currently has international lab members from countries including China and Brazil, which Amparo said is a microcosm of what she hopes the full Fulbright experience can be.

Amber Amparo, a research associate in Dr. Andrew Waters' lab, has been awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to do cancer research in the Netherlands in the fall.

Amparo will conduct research at the Netherlands Cancer Institute after receiving a Fulbright Award. Photo/Andrew Higley/UC Marketing + Brand.

“The Fulbright program spoke to me as an opportunity to engage in cross-cultural dialogue at that scale, becoming a cultural diplomat and also participating in cutting-edge research,” she said. “The Netherlands Cancer Institute is a world-renowned cancer center associated with its own hospital, and the Bernards lab has made incredible strides for improving accessibility of therapies to patients.” 

Fulbright scholarships are often an indication of future career success, as program alumni have won 62 Nobel Prizes, 89 Pulitzer Prizes and 80 MacArthur Fellowships.  

“I just know it’s going to be an amazing experience and that my time here at UC has really prepared me to feel confident in making the most of it,” Amparo said. “I hope after that experience, I can bring it back to the lab and I can share those skills I've developed through it.”  

Beyond the classroom

UC invented cooperative education more than 100 years ago, and we continue to innovate all aspects of experience-based learning, including internships, service learning, virtual co-ops, community projects and industry partnerships. Learn more.

Featured photo at top of Amparo working in the laboratory. Photo/Andrew Higley/UC Marketing + Brand.

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