Rice applied physicist wins National Cancer Institute fellowship

Pelham Keahey will use six-year grant to improve the early diagnosis of cancer

Rice University graduate student Pelham Keahey is among the inaugural winners of the National Cancer Institute’s (NCI) prestigious predoctoral-to-postdoctoral fellow transition award, which includes funding for two years of graduate school and four years of postdoctoral training.

Keahey, who is pursuing a doctorate through Rice’s Applied Physics Graduate Program and carrying out his research in the lab of bioengineer Rebecca Richards-Kortum, said the funds will support his development on the use of low-cost, point-of-care optical imaging and molecular probes to improve the detection and treatment of cancer.

Pelham Keahey with HRME

Pelham Keahey (Photo by Jeff Fitlow/Rice University)

The NCI fellowships are intended to encourage and retain outstanding graduate students who have demonstrated potential and interest in pursuing careers as independent cancer researchers. Nominations were limited to one student per institution; fewer than 40 fellows were chosen.

“Just as with research, the achievement of this award included many people other than myself,” Keahey said. “I’m grateful to everyone at Rice who helped and encouraged me throughout this process.”

He recently co-authored a study on the Richards-Kortum lab’s invention of real-time “optical sectioning” to remove out-of-focus light in minimally invasive fiber-optic microscopes, which will allow surgeons to zoom in on cancer tumors prior to surgery.

“At Rice, I’m getting to do exactly what I want to do and I’m having much more fun than I ever thought possible,” he said. “Rice has given me the flexibility to pursue the degree I want while still following my research interests that are not as traditionally related.”

Keahey’s dissertation research will provide training and expertise in biomedical optics and translational medicine focused on analyzing tissue morphology in vivo. His postdoctoral research will pertain to the development of molecular contrast agents used to target disease-specific markers associated with cancerous growth.

“The goal is to integrate these skills to build a strong foundation for a career in optical molecular imaging,” Keahey said.

The fellowship recipients are invited to a fellows meeting at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., in January.

Outside the lab, Keahey taps into his other passion, fencing. Like many Rice students, he enjoys pursuing two seemingly unrelated interests. For the past four years, Keahey has served as coach of the Rice Fencing Club.

Keahey has been a part of Rice’s Applied Physics Graduate Program since 2012 and plans to defend his dissertation by December 2017. After his postdoctoral training, he hopes to pursue a tenure-track position at an academic institution in the field of translational biomedical imaging and diagnostics.

About Kendall Schoemann

Kendall Schoemann is a staff writer in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.