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Cancer researcher Dr. Jana Rocker, whose postdoctoral work at USA Mitchell Cancer Institute steered research projects in pancreatic and ovarian cancer, is moving to the Mississippi Gulf Coast to take a job in academic data analysis and be closer to family.
“I will miss research,” said Rocker, 42, who earned her Ph.D. in basic medical sciences while at MCI. “For now, it’s good to move home.”
For the past seven years, Rocker has commuted from Mobile to Gulfport on weekends to see her husband, Raymond Rocker, a civilian systems administrator at Stennis Space Center, and their two cats, Colonel and Sonic. She will work in data-base analysis at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College administrative offices in Gulfport.
“I’ll be using the skills I gained during my postdoctoral work,” she said. “I’ll be focused more on analysis. That’s where my strength is.”
While working toward a doctorate in 2010, Rocker became interested in using nonstandard bio-fluids rather than the standard blood and urine to test for colon cancer. Her idea evolved into MCI projects to develop tests for pancreatic cancer using colonoscopy fluid, and her methods are also being applied to ovarian cancer using pap smear fluid. Those projects continue at MCI.
“I found a paper that suggested looking at urine for colon cancer,” said Rocker. “At the time, a group from Australia was running tests on fecal material in a gel. I said, ‘Why not?’”
Rocker went on to create a method for modeling proteomics data to help determine which proteins are the best discriminators of disease. Today, MCI researchers call that process “the Jana method.”
Ultimately, MCI researchers want to develop screening tests for ovarian and pancreatic cancers, which often go undiagnosed until the diseases are in their more lethal, later stages.
Rocker’s mentor at MCI, Dr. Lewis Pannell, describes her as a “rare breed.”
“She’s got expertise in all aspects of cancer. Very few people fit that,” said Pannell, professor of Oncologic Sciences and head of the Proteomics and Mass Spectrometry Lab.
Pannell was referring to Rocker’s own cancer journey, which began when she was 10 years old and growing up in Dallas. Pain in her left shoulder led to a stunning diagnosis of osteosarcoma, an aggressive bone cancer. Surgeons amputated her left arm and shoulder to remove the tumor, which had spread to blood vessels and nerves. She underwent chemotherapy for a year.
Rocker related her story on canvas last spring for a Survivors Day event sponsored by MCI. On the canvas are images of an IV, a mouse, a cross, a rainbow and strands of DNA, along with the words hope, purpose, faith, survive and research.
Rocker points to an image of an ice bucket with a “Holiday Inn” logo. The bucket was her constant companion while she suffered from chemo-induced nausea. “I was sick for a year,” she said.
Over the decades, Rocker has overcome many challenges. After completing an undergraduate degree in biochemistry, she began to pursue a master’s degree but was told by a professor she idolized that she couldn’t work in a lab with only one arm.
Dismayed, she took a job in computer technical support for 10 years before returning to science at the Gulf Coast Research Lab in 2005 and pursuing a master’s degree in coastal sciences at the University of Southern Mississippi.
In 2008, while visiting MCI for a doctor’s appointment, she was intrigued by the working laboratories housed in the building. Realizing she could operate most of the equipment there, she applied for a job -- and enrolled in a Ph.D. program at South.
Pannell praised Rocker’s resilience. “For 18 months, she said she wouldn’t succeed in isolating a protein from fecal material, but suddenly she found the key,” he said. “Then she was turning out samples as fast as we could run them.”
Having survived cancer, fighting it as a researcher has meant a great deal to Rocker. “I’m very glad I’ve done it, even though I’m leaving it for now,” she said.
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