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A researcher dedicated to finding a cure for cancer and a biologist uncovering the mysteries of Alzheimer’s disease were honored recently as UNLV’s outstanding graduates at winter commencement. These two students — Van Vo and Krystal Belmonte — were among the nearly 2,000 new graduates at the winter commencement Dec. 16.
Vo has spent 13 years at UNLV, obtaining bachelors and master’s degrees in biochemistry and now a Ph.D. in chemistry, as well as a U.S. patent. A cancer researcher, Vo has made it her personal quest to find a cure for a disease that has taken the lives of many, including her grandfather’s and uncles’.
She found her calling in an oncology class during her senior year as an undergraduate.
“I became certain of what I wanted to do after taking the class. I wanted to become a cancer researcher,” Vo, 31, said. “I like doing all the hands on work. It’s exciting to get results that demonstrate the drugs are working and to be a part of the development of clinical chemotherapy drugs.”
Under the mentorship of Pradip Bhowmik, professor of chemistry, and Bryan Spangelo, professor of biochemistry, Vo’s research led to the discovery of platinum-based drugs that are more effective, resulting in a U.S. patent. Her work on cancer therapy has been published in peer-reviewed scientific journals six times and has been included in a submission of a second provisional patent application.
Vo’s family came to America from Vietnam when she was 9 years old, and had imparted on her that this country would be a “land of opportunity,” words that influence Vo’s work today.
“Since cancer biology is so diverse, a cure that would work for all types of cancers may seem like an impossible task, but who in the early 1900s would have thought it was possible to cure tuberculosis?” Vo said.
Vo is currently a postdoctoral researcher and teaches chemistry part-time at Nevada State College.
The second researcher honored by UNLV during the winter commencement Krystal Belmonte spent last summer researching the biomarkers for Alzheimer’s disease.
Selected for a summer undergraduate research fellowship at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Belmonte’s work at the prestigious institution solidified her commitment to piecing together the puzzle that is Alzheimer’s.
Belmonte’s motivation to find solutions for patients comes from personal experiences. Her family members have suffered from the disease and her parents have served as primary caregivers, so the disease has always had a part in her life.
“It may be a far off way (before we find) a cure, but at least we are taking steps, and I want to be a part of those steps,” Belmonte, 22, said.
Under the mentorship of psychology researcher Jefferson Kinney, Belmonte studied the links between diabetes and Alzheimer’s. As a McNair scholar, she completed a research paper on neurological systems that could affect the progression of Alzheimer’s.
In the Honors College, she taught a first-year seminar course to introduce freshmen to the campus resources and research opportunities available at the undergraduate level. Whatever students choose, she encourages them to pursue passion first rather than settling for something they have to do.
“I want them to enjoy their time. You don’t have to go one direction,” Belmonte said. Belmonte plans to continue her Alzheimer’s research at the Mayo Clinic next month before graduate school next fall.
Van Vo, UNLV graduate with a Ph.D. in chemistry (Right)
Krystal Belmonte, UNLV graduate with a B.S. in Biological Sciences (Left)