Carnegie Mellon University
May 02, 2023

Carnegie Mellon Women's Association Honors Senior Mona Yuan

By Kirsten Heuring

Jocelyn Duffy
  • Associate Dean for Communications, MCS
  • 412-268-9982

The American Cancer Society predicts that more than 50,000 Americans will be diagnosed with a form of oral cancer in 2023. Carnegie Mellon University senior Mona Yuan's research may help change the way those and future patients are treated.

As an undergraduate research assistant in the Scheff Lab at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center since January 2022, Yuan investigates how opioids affect patients who have oral cancer. Oral cancer is one of the most painful forms of cancer, and many patients are prescribed opioid pain medication. However, Yuan said doctors were unsure about if these painkillers could exacerbate the disease.

"It's a very important issue," said Yuan whose major was neurobiology. "If it's making their cancer worse, then patients should not be taking so many pain meds. But at the same time, we can't leave patients in pain."

Yuan said she and other researchers found that opioids decrease the strength of the immune system in patients with oral cancer, making it harder for them to fight off the disease. With that knowledge, the lab plans to find other treatments for oral cancer pain going forward.

When she arrived at Carnegie Mellon, Yuan knew she wanted to pursue research early, so she started in the Chamanzer lab her first year. She helped develop and test non-invasive neural interfaces.

"I was really looking for that lab experience early on, working on a bench, doing wet lab research, and learning different biology techniques," she said. Joining the Scheff Lab offered her a new perspective through clinical research. "I knew that I wanted to conduct more translational research that would improve the treatment and quality of life for patients."

Outside of lab work, Yuan serves as a teaching assistant for the Modern Biology Lab led by Carrie Doonan, teaching professor and the director of the undergraduate biological sciences laboratories.

Yuan also is a member of the pre-health fraternity Alpha Epsilon Delta and the CMU Health Professions Program. A captain of the Carnegie Mellon Track and Field Team, she finished third in the 800m race at the Westminster Invitational in early April.

"Without running, my experience at CMU would have been very different," Yuan said. "Running has taught me so many skills beyond just on the track. I'm extremely thankful that I got the opportunity to compete at this level."

Because of her hard work and dedication, Yuan earned a Carnegie Mellon Women's Association Award. These awards are given to one graduating senior from every college for outstanding achievements.

"Mona's high academic standards and creative approach to problem solving is also demonstrated through her research and in her teaching," Doonan said. "One of Mona's best strengths is to be able to communicate with people of all backgrounds, especially in this laboratory. She balances all of her activities while being a senior leader as part of the Track and Field Team. Mona leaves a positive impact on the CMU community."

After she graduates, Yuan said she will spend a year finishing her research before pursuing a medical degree, potentially focusing on oncology. She said she appreciates the skills research has given her.

"Research in general really challenges you," Yuan said. "You're presented with such a complex problem, and there's so many angles you can take to try to solve it. It's a combination of curiosity and problem solving."