A photo of a woman in a white lab coat standing in a lab
Krista Dalton holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the College of Engineering and a Ph.D. from the School of Dentistry. (John Wallace, School of Dentistry)

How I found my research: Krista Dalton studies the genetics of cancer to give pediatric patients a brighter future

The postdoctoral researcher and School of Dentistry graduate has deep VCU roots and a passion drawn from volunteer work.

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Krista Dalton is a postdoctoral researcher at the VCU School of Dentistry’s Philips Institute for Oral Health Research, where she is focused on uncovering the inner workings of neuroblastoma, a rare but deadly form of pediatric cancer. Through her research, she hopes to help identify therapeutic solutions for reducing cancer-related deaths and improving the quality of life for patients.

This year Dalton completed her Ph.D. in oral health research with a concentration in cancer at Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Dentistry. She also holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in biomedical engineering from the VCU College of Engineering.

Dalton shared with VCU News her latest research efforts and what she loves about the experience.

Tell us the focus of your research ... and why it is important/impactful for all of us. 

Neuroblastoma is a deadly pediatric cancer, and high-risk cases are often driven by the amplification of a transcription factor called MYCN. Transcription factors are proteins that help control gene expression in our cells, and when genetic mutations occur within these proteins, their dysfunction can ultimately lead to cancer. As such, MYCN remains the most important drug target in neuroblastoma and of high importance for treating other pediatric cancers. My research focuses on finding therapeutic vulnerabilities driven by MYCN alterations in neuroblastoma that can be targeted with clinically relevant therapies.

What inspired you to pursue this line of research?

I was initially drawn to pediatric cancer research during my time volunteering with Connor’s Heroes, a Richmond-based nonprofit organization that supports local pediatric cancer patients and their families. I have been volunteering there since 2014, and through this organization, I not only had the opportunity to help support these families but also spend time with pediatric cancer patients, doing arts and crafts and getting to see their amazing personalities. This experience helped spark my interest in cancer research, and my drive to continue this line of research has been supported by a great team of mentors here at VCU.

Tell us about a surprise in your research journey. 

One of the biggest surprises in my research journey is the excitement that comes with research. Every day in the lab is different, and you can be surprised by where your research leads you.

Tell us about an obstacle or challenge you had to overcome in your work. 

One of the most challenging things in research is that some experiments can take weeks or even months to complete, and the experiment may fail or need to be repeated. Sometimes this can feel frustrating, but when you look at every experiment — failure or success — as something to be learned, then this can help during this challenging process.

A photo of a woman wearing a white lab coat and latex gloves holding a bottle with redish liquid in front of her.
Krista Dalton was initially drawn to pediatric cancer research while volunteering with Connor’s Heroes, a Richmond-based nonprofit organization that supports local pediatric cancer patients and their families. (John Wallace, School of Dentistry)

Is there a memorable partnership or lesson you’ve embraced along the way? 

My research journey has been driven by experiences with fantastic mentors! My bachelor’s and master’s work were completed with the Biomedical Engineering department at VCU, which has several great professors and helped me learn so much. This program helped spark my interest in staying in research. I have continued to have a great support system within the Philips Institute for Oral Health Research as I continued my research journey as a Ph.D. student and post-doc. Both of my advisors from my master’s (Rebecca Heise) and my Ph.D. (Anthony Faber) research had a great open-door policy and have taken time to help me in several ways. This includes help with experimental design, sending me opportunities to help further my research and my career, and giving great advice on potential future career paths.

What do you find fulfilling about the research process? 

It’s very rewarding to know that the research that you are doing may be able to contribute further to research that can ultimately enhance the therapeutic options and potentially the quality of life of cancer patients.

What advice would you offer undergrads to kick-start their own research journeys? 

Ask lots of questions. Don’t be afraid to take your time exploring different research opportunities to find the best fit for you.

“How I found my research” is a new series featuring VCU student-researchers.