The Journey to the Jude series highlights how St. Jude employees developed a passion for their careers and how that journey translates to their current roles.
By Sasha Steinberg
St. Jude lead researcher Lyudmila Tsurkan of Hematology smiles when recalling her childhood in the central Asian nation of Kazakhstan. She particularly remembers awaking each morning to the view of a 12,000-foot snowcapped mountain outside her living room window.
While she misses the mountains of Kazakhstan, Tsurkan said she is happy to have another beautiful view of home at St. Jude. This year, the hospital added the flag of Kazakhstan and 31 other employee homelands to the display in the Danny Thomas Research Center atrium.
“It’s a beautiful flag,” Tsurkan said with a smile. “It makes me feel like someone can see that I’m here. I like how St. Jude cares about employees from all countries.”
Tsurkan also appreciates the campus landscaping, including the native trees and welcoming facilities.
“Something special about St. Jude is that it’s a relaxing place. If you’re the type of person who gets rejuvenated from nature, you can get outside and walk around.”
“I also like how when St. Jude starts building something new, they make it look inviting,” Tsurkan said. “In some way, I believe the murals, artwork and interactive screens help kids get distracted from the reality of being in a hospital.”
Tsurkan came to the U.S. in the early 2000s, working at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in east Tennessee before relocating to Memphis. She served for two years in a postdoctoral position at the University of Memphis before looking for a permanent role. She is grateful to have found it at St. Jude, where she is celebrating 18 years in September.
“A door opened for me. I came across a St. Jude advertisement for an open position with Dr. Phil Potter’s group. I applied and got accepted,” she said. “At that time, the group’s major focus was studying the role of Carboxylesterases in drug metabolism and the possible ways of regulating the enzymes’ activity. This is where my experience with high-performance liquid chromatography became the most valuable for the group.”
One of the proudest moments of Tsurkan’s career involved a collaborative project between St. Jude, City of Hope National Medical Center and Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles. The project took more than 30 years to materialize from an idea to a potential treatment. She started contributing to the project after arriving at St. Jude in 2004 and became more involved toward the project’s conclusion.
“When you’re in the lab, it can be hard to see the big picture, so when you do this research and see it go into trial and be applied to patients, it’s a good feeling,” Tsurkan said. “It’s difficult to see kids with cancer. It’s unfair that they are sick, but I think it’s great that St. Jude tries to make their situation as normal as possible for them.”
Since November 2021, Tsurkan has been a lead researcher in the lab of Marta Derecka, PhD, Derecka Lab. She and a team of investigators study how the bone marrow microenvironment shapes the behavior and biology of blood cells. Tsurkan enjoys applying her skills to a range of tasks, from cell culture assays to in vivo experiments.
“I love what I am doing,” she said. “St. Jude gives me an opportunity to keep my passion for science alive.”