Chandler Takes Top Honor at Three-Minute Thesis

Madison Chandler, HSOP graduate student

December 16, 2016

By Abigail Little

AUBURN, Alabama – Madison Chandler, a pharmaceutical sciences graduate student in the labs of Dr. Nancy Merner and Dr. Randall Clark, recently won the Auburn University Three Minute Thesis (3MT) competition. The title of her presentation was “Bridging the divide between cancer genetics research and the underserved in Alabama.”

She competed in the finals on Friday, Nov. 18 in the Auditorium at The Hotel at Auburn University. By winning, she took home $500 in prize money and will go on to compete 2016 Trans-Tasman 3MT Competition. The 3MT is an academic competition that challenges graduate students to describe their research within three minutes to a general audience. 3MT celebrates the discoveries made by research students and encourages their skill in communicating the importance of research to the broader community.

“It meant a lot to win this competition. It validated all of my hard work over the past two years and it means that health disparity issues are finally getting the recognition and concern they deserve,” said Chandler. “I am very thankful to be able to spread awareness about the need for research focused on minority and underserved individuals in order to eliminate health disparities in the future.”

“Madison is an outstanding student. It is a pleasure to work with such a competent, dedicated, and passionate individual,” said Merner, a research assistant professor in the Department of Drug Discovery and Development. “I was confident in her ability before the competition began, and winning the 3MT competition simply validated my feelings. She did an amazing job, and I am extremely proud of her."

Chandler presents during 3MT competition
Madison Chandler presents her research during the Auburn University Three Minute Thesis competition.
Chandler receives award
Madison Chandler wins the 3MT competition, pictured with Dr. George Flowers, dean of the AU Graduate School.

Chandler’s research project focuses on identifying mutations in certain cancer risk genes that cause Hereditary Breast and Ovarian Cancer Syndrome, which are associated with an increased risk of breast cancer along with additional cancers, such as ovarian and prostate cancer. These mutations can potentially increase an average U.S. woman's lifetime risk (12.5%) to 90%. Mutations in known cancer risk genes only explain 35% of hereditary breast cancer cases leaving a large portion of hereditary breast cancer cases genetically unexplained.

“The majority of cancer genetics research published to date focused on individuals of European descent, so less information is known about cancer genetics in other ethnicities,” said Chandler.

Chandler’s research focuses on the African American population in Alabama. This provides the opportunity to study a relatively homogeneous population because of isolated communities that have been established based on racial and geographical segregation, and to address cancer disparity issues.

Many disparities can be attributed to social economic factors; however, biological factors can play a significant role. African American women have a higher incidence rate of breast cancer under the age of 40, which is a hallmark of hereditary breast cancer. Therefore, this disparity is likely due to genetic risk factors.

“Alabama is an extremely medically-underserved state where over 60% of the population lack access to critical healthcare services,” said Merner. “Our research efforts focus on identifying genetic risk factors of breast cancer, and relaying genetic information back to our primarily medically-underserved study participants.

“We initially engage the Alabama population through an education and trust-building mechanism that ultimately inspires individuals to participate in the study; this includes the medically-underserved as well as severely understudied ethnic minorities.”

First, hospital recruitment was established at East Alabama Medical Center to recruit cancer affected individuals. However, they needed to bridge the divide between genetics research and the medically underserved by establishing trust.

Thus, community-based recruitment was established. Community partners introduce their team to the community to meet and educate cancer-affected individuals about cancer genetics and their risk. They travel the entire of Alabama in their unique recruitment bus, called the Gene Machine, to recruit interested individuals. After a year and a half of recruitment, 147 participants from 82 cancer families have been recruited.

Following recruitment, participants’ DNA are screened for genetic mutations in cancer risk genes. They informed participants of identified mutations, providing genetic information that has proven to save lives. This information is normally inaccessible to the underserved. This effort will lead to the identification of additional cancer risk genes and, ultimately, eliminate health disparities.

“Eighteen years ago, my uncle was diagnosed with clival chordoma; this disease has a median life expectancy of seven to nine years after diagnosis. Amazingly, through the dedication of many researchers and doctors, he continues to enjoy an active, fun life,” said Chandler. “His story inspired me to pursue a career path in drug discovery and development in order to improve the life expectancy and quality of each individual diagnosed with a deadly disease.”

Genetic research in relation to cancer is a preventative measure and can increase the possibility of early detection. One of the biggest barriers in the process is spreading awareness, something that Merner believes Chandler help further along in the competition.

“This is a dedicated group effort that can really impact our community,” said Merner. “Madison delivered that message beautifully during this competition.”

Chandler works at the computer
Madison Chandler works at the computer in Dr. Nancy Merner's lab.
Chandler works in the lab
Much of Chandler's work includes running genetic tests to determine cancer risk.


About the Harrison School of Pharmacy
Auburn University’s Harrison School of Pharmacy is ranked among the top 20 percent of all pharmacy schools in the United States, according to U.S. News & World Report. Fully accredited by the Accreditation Council for Pharmacy Education (ACPE), the School offers doctoral degrees in pharmacy (Pharm.D.) and pharmaceutical sciences (Ph.D.) while also offering a master’s in pharmaceutical sciences. For more information about the School, please call 334.844.8348 or visit

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Last Updated: July 1, 2016