Dr. Racquel Collins-Underwood ’01, a cancer researcher at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, knew at an early age that she wanted to make a difference in children’s lives.
“I knew at the age of 12 that I would be a cancer researcher at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. When Danny Thomas was alive, he would have fundraising telethons throughout the year. I was glued to every one of them. When I asked my parents why these kids were dying, they couldn’t answer my questions. I then made it my mission to find out why. Big dreams like this are hard to achieve on your own,” says Collins-Underwood.
After completing her military service in the U.S. Air Force, Collins-Underwood chose to attend Radford University because of its low student-professor ratio, its excellent biology program and the beautiful campus. “Radford University is still one of the most picturesque campuses that I have ever seen,” she says.
She chose biology because “understanding the basic molecular and cellular processes that make life possible has always intrigued me. Even after so many years in the field, how cells work still fascinates me,” she says. Her interests led her to pursue medical technology. “I was talking to one of my mentors at Radford, Dr. Mary Roberts, and she knew my aspirations for cancer research. She introduced me to the medical technology program, and I immediately changed my major from biology to medical technology. I still had the opportunity to learn about molecular and cellular process but now with a clinical application. Little did I know that this one decision would positively impact the rest of my career!”
After graduating in 2001, she moved to Baltimore to work as a medical technologist in the transfusion medicine department at Johns Hopkins Hospital. After two years there, she applied to the Cancer Biology Ph.D. program at Wake Forest University School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, N.C. “I obtained my Ph.D. in Cancer and Radiation Biology and applied for one job -- at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. And I got it!”
After three years in research, she was promoted to a permanent staff member position in the Molecular Pathology Laboratory. In her current role, she is a part of a team that diagnoses childhood cancers and follows patients throughout their treatment using molecular techniques that allows scientists to see mutations at the DNA and RNA level. In her spare time, she works with other research laboratories that are constantly looking for new mutations related to cancer. She helps to design research processes to incorporate new findings into the panels of genetic tests available to patients. “It’s the most incredible work I’ve ever done and consider myself one of the lucky few that actually go to a job that I love every day,” she says.
She says the most rewarding part of her work is that she gets to see the fruits of her labor. “Because all of the employees and the families that are served by St. Jude share one hospital space and one cafeteria, we are constantly reminded of why our work is so important. Seeing these kids run, play and laugh is a constant source of inspiration that changes our attitude and perspective on life.” Collins-Underwood also volunteers after hours at the hospital. “I get to meet and spend time with these amazing patients and their families. While I have seen many kids in my time here achieve remission and go on to lead healthy, cancer-free lives, we still lose patients. It’s heartbreaking, but it gives me more drive and energy to continue the work so that the next child survives.”
As a professional, she still thinks back on her time at RU. “Dr. Roberts and Dr. Orion Rogers were my favorite professors and my first real mentors. Dr. Gary Coté will also always stand out in my mind. What I gained from Dr. Roberts’s intense labs, Dr. Coté’s cell biology class, and Dr. Cindy Burkhardt’s instrumental methods class is alive and well in my brain today!”
Collins-Underwood currently serves on the College of Science and Technology Alumni Advisory Council. “I was blessed to find this not-so-little gem of a school in the mountains of Virginia. Every experience and relationship at Radford made me the person and scientist I am today. I am grateful beyond words for the opportunity to study at Radford University.”