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Dr. Catherine Poh: How I Became an Oral Cancer Researcher

August 7, 2015

Hello, my name is Catherine Poh and I am an oral cancer researcher. I took the “long way” to get to where I am today.

I grew up in Taiwan and got my dental degree from the National Taiwan University in Taipei, Taiwan. Though I was getting my degree in general dentistry, I had already developed a great interest in pathology/oral pathology during my time in Taipei.  This was twenty some years ago.

During my internship, there was a patient who was 40 years old and suffering from oral cancer. Not only was he a short-term user of tobacco, but he was also using betel nuts simultaneously! (betel nut is a fruit that is commonly used in Southeast Asia; it has been recognized as an independent carcinogenic factor contributing to oral cancer). I was surprised by the aggressiveness and the destructiveness of this disease on such a young cancer patient and this prompted me to pursue my PhD to further study oral cancer.

From Taiwan to British Columbia

I practiced as a dentist for almost 10 years before I moved to Canada and entered the PhD program at the University of British Columbia in 1997. For my dissertation, I studied molecular biology and oral cancer. During my four years of research, I studied under the mentorship of Drs. Lewei Zhang and Miriam Rosin. I had the opportunity to analyze clinical information from oral cancer patients, look at pathological features of lesions and gather molecular test results on samples from patients. I was able to combine my analysis to create tests for predicting oral cancer risk in progression and recurrence.

Gradually, I learned the nature of this disease and I found that I enjoyed research very much. I began attending international conferences to present my research findings and had the chance to work with fellow graduate students and other clinicians – it was an eye-opening experience! I realized that this would be my life-long career goal – to improve oral cancer patients’ outcomes.