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Cancer researcher Cameron ’98 is a champion for liberal arts college graduates

Barry McNamara
09/14/2017
MONMOUTH, Ill. – Jennifer Cameron believes so strongly in the type of education she received at Monmouth College that she looks for similarly educated individuals to join her research team at Louisiana State University, where she is an assistant professor in LSU’s Health Science Center School of Medicine.

The 1998 graduate will return to her alma mater in October to present the annual Donald B. McMullen Lecture in Biology. Her public talk will be at 7 p.m. Oct. 17 in the Pattee Auditorium of the Center for Science and Business.

Also a graduate of nearby Bushnell-Prairie City High School, Cameron will visit with several Monmouth College classes during her time in the area.

“In my lab, I hire people who are small-college, liberal-arts trained,” said Cameron, whose research focuses on preventive cancer treatment, specifically with the human papillomavirus (HPV). “They have a broader sense of how to piece things together. I value the education I receive so much and that extends to the people I’m training.”

Choosing a liberal arts college

Cameron is a textbook example of the benefits of a liberal arts education. In fact, so is one of her textbooks.

“I apply the thought processes I learned at Monmouth every day,” said Cameron. “In terms of actual training that I use, I regularly go back to my biostatistics course at Monmouth. I had two or three other biostatistics courses later, but the best one I had was at Monmouth. I still go back to my Monmouth textbook. It explains it better than anything I’ve seen since.”

When it came time to choose a college, Cameron knew she wanted to study biology at a small liberal arts college.

“I don’t know if I totally knew what a liberal arts education was, but I understood what the admission reps were telling me,” she said. “It fit my personality and my wanting-to-do-it-all style. In junior high and high school, I was a top student, I was in athletics and I was in band. I’ve always liked that broad approach to life.”

The opportunity to continue her athletic career at Monmouth was appealing – Cameron was a four-year basketball and track and field athlete and graduated as the all-time leader in basketball games played. Another element of the College was also appealing – its friendly atmosphere.

“The biggest difference I found between Monmouth and other colleges I visited were that the people were friendlier,” she said. “I found that to be true throughout my time at Monmouth.”

Academics and athletics

Cameron was also shaped by her time as a Fighting Scot. She recalls making a three-point basket in the final seconds for a one-point victory that helped Monmouth secure its first Midwest Conference tournament berth (she still has the game ball from that contest). Her time on the track and field team was also rewarding.

“Track at Monmouth College is different from what I did in high school,” she said. “You’re kind of a one-man show in track at a small high school, and everyone else is out there just for the fun of it. But at Monmouth, it’s run very much as a team.”

Cameron learned that lesson early in her track career after joining the indoor squad late in the season due to her basketball commitment.

“I remember competing in the long jump, and there was this wall of teammates lining the runway on both sides,” she said. “They started this rhythmic clap. I had never experienced anything like that, and it gave me such an adrenaline rush. And nobody even really knew who I was. I think I jumped some of my best jumps at that meet. There was just so much energy.”

Focus on cancer research

After she graduated from Monmouth, Cameron completed her doctorate at LSU six years later. Then she headed to Boston for a post-doctorate opportunity with a Harvard University professor.

“While I was away, Katrina hit New Orleans, so I successfully missed that,” said Cameron. “But I soon realized I wasn’t happy with what I was doing. I wanted to return to New Orleans and be part of the rebuilding.”

Cameron found that opportunity with a Tulane University professor looking for post-doctoral students. She did that work for six years before venturing down her own research path at LSU.

“One of my big areas of interests is not in developing drugs to battle cancer, but in detecting cancer in very early stages and preventing it from developing,” said Cameron, who focuses cervical cancer. “We have to start thinking about what we need to do better to help women. We need a screening paradigm change, and I’ve received federal funding to research that.”

Cameron’s visit to campus will coincide with Breast Cancer Awareness Month, when she says cancer will be very much on people’s minds.

“There’ll be a lot of talk about the Susan G. Komen organization, and everybody will be wearing pink,” she said. “It will be a good discussion to have; what we can do, and how we can prevent cancer in the first place – looking at cancer prevention strategies as opposed to cures.”

It’s fitting that the discussion will be at Monmouth College. Even though cancer poses one of the biggest challenges for science, Cameron said her research still comes down to “taking problems apart and looking for creative solutions. ... I became a better thinker going through the curriculum at Monmouth.”