Cancer Treatment and Science Communication - Two Important Goals for Alumna Tori Klein

From speaking to k-12 students and audiences at competitions, to working on ways to penetrate cancer cells - Tori Klein wants to find ways to improve human life inside and outside of the laboratory.

January 13, 2022


Tori Klein, photo credit: Trevor Gass

Researchers at UC Santa Cruz are looking for new ways to fight cancer cells unable to be penetrated by small-molecule medications (cells called undruggable targets). Natural chemical compounds such as those found in fungi and bacteria are being examined as potential treatments which could penetrate these cells. UC Santa Cruz Alumna Tori Klein (Ph.D. Chemistry, 2020), presented her research on Cordyceps, a fungus, and its ability to kill cancerous tumor cells at the 2020 UC Santa Cruz Grad Slam competition – a three-minute dissertation presentation conducted across campus for all graduate students in every division.

“Often, I use a special type of microscope and imaging software to figure out how these natural products affect individual components of a cell,” says Klein. “This allows me to identify how the natural product kills the cancer cells that make up tumors in cancer.”

She won the competition and earned the title “Grad Slam Champion,” but more importantly she continues her research now with the National Institutes of Health (NIH) as a Postdoctoral Researcher.

Before graduating, and well-before coming to graduate school, Klein had a deep interest in the natural world. Her childhood goal was to become a marine biologist, and she earned her bachelor’s degree in Marine Biology from Oregon State University. At OSU she learned how natural science was being used to discover potential cancer treatments. “In one of these lectures, we learned about how compounds found in marine organisms, like bacteria and invertebrates, were being used to treat cancer. I was immediately hooked. I loved that this type of research was a great combination of chemistry and biology, and the results could be directly applied to improve some aspect of human life.”   

Klein considered how to further pursue the goal of improving human life with the natural sciences, and applied to graduate school at UC Santa Cruz. She was accepted into the Lokey Research Group in the Chemistry and Biochemistry department, led by Professor Scott Lokey.

What led her to UC Santa Cruz? “I chose to come to UCSC for the great interdisciplinary research that was happening in the Biomedical Sciences program and the highly collaborative nature of the Chemistry and Biochemistry department. I was also very excited to participate in the natural product research happening in UCSC’s Chemical Screening Center on campus.”

While conducting research and attending courses as a graduate student, Klein was also able to pursue ways to share her interests in the sciences with others. Klein participated in the K-12 outreach events held by the Women in Science and Engineering group (WiSE) at UC Santa Cruz, and in events like the Grad Slam competition, opportunities which allowed her to communicate to the general public outside of the campus community.

“As an outreach leader [for WiSE], I had the amazing opportunity to teach elementary and middle school kids about science using hands-on activities like extracting DNA from strawberries,” Klein said. “Kids are so curious at that age, and it was a great experience to be able to share my love of science with them and show them that anyone can be a scientist.”

Now as a Postdoctoral Researcher for the NIH, Klein works with the National Cancer Institute, “developing new cancer therapeutics from a group of compounds that are commonly found in the venoms of scorpions, snakes, and spiders,” she said. Klein’s communications work continues as well, as she shares her excitement and interest in the sciences with the general public. “During my time as a postdoctoral researcher, I have had a few opportunities to teach K-12 students about science and careers in science through virtual workshops,” she said, “and I plan on continuing to do so.”

The UC Santa Cruz Grad Slam will be held on March 5, 2022 and graduate students from all divisions are welcome to participate. The deadline for entries is January 28, 2022.