When Laurie Littlepage (‘92) was in fourth grade, her grandmother died of cancer. Since her grandmother’s death, Littlepage has devoted her life to fighting cancer. Now, as the Campbell Family associate professor of cancer research at the University of Notre Dame in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry and the Harper Cancer Research Institute, she’s leading groundbreaking research into how the disease changes in the body and responds to different treatments.
She also is a member at the Indiana University Melvin and Bren Simon Cancer Center of the Tumor Microenvironment and Metastasis Program and of the Breast Cancer Research Program.
“I became interested in the biology of cancer early on and became especially interested in genetics through both Laida Meekes’ biology class at Vanguard and through summer programs I did at Baylor University, and at the Joseph Baldwin Academy in Kirksville, Missouri,” she said.
Littlepage actually graduated from the Texas Academy of Mathematics and Science (TAMS), which she attended the last two years of high school, to take college classes full time at the University of North Texas (UNT) where she worked in her first research lab and quickly became addicted to the discovery process.
“I feel lucky to be living the dream I have had for as long as I can remember,” she said. “I love knowing that my research is translational and should have an impact on cancer patients who are battling cancer. Every day I help fight cancer and train students to develop their skills that will allow them to make the world a better place.”
Critical thinking and problem-solving skills that are required to do scientific research are some of the reasons Littlepage loves her work.
“I also love training and mentoring students who are interested in developing their critical thinking skills,” she said. “I am continually inspired by the patients and families I meet who battle cancer each day. Researching cancer is personal for me, not just for my grandmother but also for my other close family members and friends who have faced cancer.”
Groundbreaking work is part of Littlepage’s average day.
“The Littlepage lab aims to understand how cancer changes over time within the body and in response to treatment,” she said. “My lab is particularly interested in studying the proteins that cause breast cancer to spread to other tissues, like to bone or lung, and not to respond to current therapies, since these processes ultimately kill patients.”
Her team’s research recently identified proteins that cause breast cancer cells to grow in bone.
“When we blocked these same proteins, the breast cancer stopped growing in bone and may be effective in stopping bone metastasis in patients,” Littlepage said. “Because of these exciting results, we now are starting a therapeutics company that will help to bring these ideas to the clinic to help breast cancer patients with bone metastasis.”
In some of her other research, Littlepage and her team are studying other proteins that cause cancer cells to grow in the lung by changing their metabolism so that the cancer cells can survive stressful environments, like low nutrient conditions.
“We are studying how cancer cells develop resistance to therapies, like endocrine therapy and chemotherapy,” she said.
After high school, Littlepage went to the University of Texas at Austin and was in the Dean’s Scholars Honors Program. She earned a B.S. in Biochemistry and a B.S. in Molecular Biology. She graduated magna cum laude, was admitted to Phi Beta Kappa, and was awarded the national Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship (two years). At UT, she also was awarded the American Chemical Society
Outstanding Senior Award – the University of Texas at Austin Chapter, the Susan B. Clark Leadership Award for Dean’s Scholars Honors Program, and Dean’s Grants for Undergraduate Research (two-time recipient).
She received her Ph.D. in Cell and Developmental Biology from Harvard University for her research at Harvard Medical School in the laboratory of Dr. Joan Ruderman in the Department of Cell Biology. Littlepage completed her postdoctoral training at the University of California, San Francisco in the laboratory of Dr. Zena Werb in the Department of Anatomy.
“I am a fan of choosing a career that interests you and that will positively impact the world,” Littlepage said. “You will know that you have found the right career for you when you are excited thinking about it as you fall asleep and when you wake up, when you think it is fun, not a job, and you cannot believe you get paid to do it.”
Littlepage said Vanguard provided her with strong foundations, particularly in writing and math, and helped her to begin developing skills that set her on a path for success in college and throughout her career.
“I remember many creative assignments that taught me to be a lifelong learner,” she said. “I am grateful to have had the exceptional and inspiring teachers I had at Vanguard.”
And since she went to college two years early, excelling academically, clearly Vanguard prepared her for college. Many Vanguard teachers contributed in different ways to who Littlepage is today, she said.
“Carol Spain was perhaps the most demanding teacher I had at Vanguard or anywhere,” she said. “She taught me to challenge myself to do the best I could do — not only enough to get a good grade. Her focus on excellence, hard work, and creativity has certainly stayed with me my whole life.”
Mary Helen George taught her journalism, speech, and English. “Journalism was a very special, tightly-knit program that served as my Vanguard family,” Littlepage said. “She had high ambitions for our group that helped us develop an award-winning paper. Working on the Vanguard Review is how I learned to work as a team. The presentation skills she taught have been extremely important to me in my career path, which constantly requires me to present my research to other scientists and to teach students.”
Geometry was Littlepage’s favorite subject because of the logic and the critical thinking skills highlighted by Dena Johns.
“She assigned us interesting projects that reinforced the topics and challenged us to see the course material from a different perspective,” she said. “She was expert in helping us both build strong foundational knowledge and also challenging us.”
Littlepage’s advice for current Vanguard students is simple.
“Don’t be afraid to do something because it is hard or takes you outside of your comfort zone,” Littlepage said. “Also, never complain unless you are willing to be a part of the solution. The tough questions facing our society require action by people who are willing to roll up their sleeves and do the hard work.”
She added that challenging ourselves to find truth through evidence and critical thinking is key. And that our relationships with other people will influence and shape the person you will become.
“Get to know people who are different from you,” she said. “These people not only may become your friends and partners but also will help you see the world differently through their different perspectives and varied life paths.”
Littlepage lives in South Bend, Indiana with her husband Steve, who is an attorney, and her son Paxton.
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