UCF’s Anna Nagel is discovering why the body forms benign tumors that cause young people to lose hearing and suffer balance issues. Her research into that condition, Neurofibromatosis type 2 (NF2), recently earned her a Young Investigator Award from the Children’s Tumor Foundation.

The $150,000 award recognizes young NF researchers across the globe who have made groundbreaking findings early in their careers.

Nagel is a postdoctoral researcher in the lab of Cristina Fernández-Valle, a Pegasus Professor who leads the Neuroscience Division at the Burnett School of Biomedical Sciences. Fernández-Valle has dedicated her research to NF2 and finding drugs that can induce cell death in these tumors.

Born in Poland, Nagel’s interest in medicine stemmed from her childhood, where she spent time in hospitals helping her sister, who suffered from myopathy, a disorder that causes severe muscle weakness. That inspired her to earn a bachelor’s and master’s in biotechnology and a doctoral degree in breast cancer and tumor microenvironments at the University of Gdansk. She then earned a Fulbright BioLAB Scholarship to join the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation to study the genetics of autoimmune diseases like lupus. After two years, she wished to return to cancer research and joined Fernández-Valle in 2022.

While NF2 tumors are benign, Fernández-Valle’s lab is testing existing, FDA-approved cancer drugs to see if they can kill NF2 tumors. In addition to hearing loss and balance issues, the tumors — called vestibular schwannomas — can cause patients to have difficulty controlling facial expressions, ringing in the ears, and dizziness. While the tumors can be removed surgically, they often grow back quickly and worse than before.

Nagel says she chose to work with Fernández-Valle because “she sees the research as translational. We want to give back to the community.”

With the award, Nagel will identify the tumors’ internal cellular workings and the best way to kill them. She will present her latest findings at the 2024 Global NF Conference in Brussels later this month.

Her advice to young researchers is to stay open to new avenues for pursuing scientific discoveries.

“Be open-minded. Apply for many things,” she says. “Don’t be discouraged when you get rejected. Being a scientist is a great opportunity. There are great science facilities all around the world. Just have fun.”