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2019 Behrens Award Recipient Persists in Innovative Cancer Studies

Zane Normal Surfing
2019 Behrens Award Recipient Zane Norman, a doctoral candidate in the lab of Biological Chemistry professor Peter Kaiser, says the patience and persistence that served him well as a surfer are assets in research.

Zane Norman has always been fascinated by nature. That fascination led him into the ocean at an early age. It also inspired a passion for research that, today, has him immersed in a search for new treatments to improve the lives of people diagnosed with cancer.

When Norman moved to San Diego from the east coast as a young child, he traded his skateboard for a surfboard. He entered his first surfing competition in seventh grade and continued through high school, competing in the National Scholastic Surfing Association, the foremost amateur competitive surfing organization in the United States.

He also introduced some science into his sport.

“I was fortunate enough to work with Scripps Institute’s wave forecasting team,” he says. “I worked on the bobbing buoys that measured wave heights, and then I would use that same data to try to track down the best break after getting off work.”

In his freshman year at UC Santa Cruz, Norman helped to form a college surf team. Although he enjoyed the camaraderie and competition, surfing was taking valuable time from his science. So, he gave up the team for the lab bench, which ultimately immersed him in the exploration of RNA splicing in the lab of Manuel Ares, Jr., Professor of Molecular, Cell & Developmental Biology at UCSC.

Today, Norman is a doctoral candidate in the lab of Peter Kaiser, professor and chair of Biological Chemistry in the UCI School of Medicine. He says the patience and persistence that served him well as a surfer are assets in research. 

Kaiser says of Norman, who was recently named the 2019 Stanley Behrens Fellow in Medicine, “He is driven to become a professor in an academic institution, is very talented on the bench, has advanced critical thinking skills, plans experiments with controls that sometimes surprise me by their thoughtfulness, works hard, is curious and genuinely excited by the process of discovery.”

Norman is currently engaged in two projects in Kaiser’s lab, each one having the potential to lead to innovative cancer therapies. The first seeks to guide development of compounds that restore the body’s most potent protection from cancer, the tumor suppressor protein p53.

“Many cancer treatments look to inhibit overactive proteins. We are taking the opposite approach of trying to turn defective proteins back on,” he says. “If we can reactivate mutant p53 in cancer cells, it can induce cell death and tumor regression. The ultimate goal is to identify drugs that can reactivate p53 without harmful side effects, so they can pass through clinical trials and improve patient outcome.”

The second project aims to identify the mechanism that links depletion of S-adenosylmethionine (SAM), the product of a metabolic reaction between methionine and adenosine triphosphate, to cell cycle arrest and cell death in cancer cells.   

Norman appreciates what the Behrens award says about his research—that it is worth recognizing and pursuing. He anticipates broadening the scope of his tumor suppressor investigation with the award funds.

“Financial flexibility is helpful in terms of what you can do,” he says. “We’ll be able to gather more info about p53. That’s exciting.”

On the rare occasions that Norman takes a break from the lab, he returns to nature. This summer he backpacked in local mountains and relaxed on the beach in Hawaii. When he stays close to home, he returns to the ocean, catching a few waves in the waters off Newport Beach.