Mitzi L. Frank graduated from Virginia Tech with a degree in psychology in 1997. For years after, Frank and her husband, Scott “Ponch” Frank, supported the university with graduate school fellowships in the College of Engineering and College of Science.

Mitzi Frank fought bravely against breast cancer for a decade before dying in March 2017 at age 41.

Considering the Franks’ long-time support of their alma mater, it is fitting that Ponch Frank ’00, master’s ’01, has established the Mitzi L. Frank Memorial Scholarship in support of undergraduate and/or graduate student research, memorializing his wife and mother of their son, Hagen.

The inaugural scholarship award, to be given annually, has been awarded to Jesse Janoski, a first-year graduate student in the Department of Biological Sciences, part of the Virginia Tech College of Science. Janoski is also an alumnus of Virginia Tech, earning dual degrees in biological sciences and biochemistry with a minor in chemistry in 2018.

Mitzi Frank

Mitzi Frank poses for a photograph
Mitzi Frank

The Mitzi L. Frank Memorial Scholarship was endowed with funds coming from donations by friends and family of the Franks, at the request of Ponch Frank. This adds to scholarship support efforts started by Ponch and Mitzi Frank well before her passing, including a graduate fellowship to support graduate students in the College of Science and the College of Engineering in alternating years.

Janoski is part of Carla Finkielstein’s lab, housed in the Fralin Life Sciences Institute at Steger Hall, where faculty and students want to understand the molecular basis by which disruption of a person’s circadian rhythm results in a higher incidence of chronic diseases, including breast cancer. These findings are particularly alarming among individuals working night-shift or those who work alternating schedules, think flight attendants, ER nurses and doctors, and 911 dispatchers. Finkielstein is an associate professor of biological sciences.

“I became interested in cancer research after taking Dr. Finkielstein’s cell and molecular biology course during my sophomore year of my undergraduate studies,” Janoski said. “Cancer is a very personal disease in the sense that most people have experienced its devastating impact directly or know someone who has.”

Scott "Ponch" Frank and his young son meet Carla Finkielstein in her lab

 Scott "Ponch" Frank and his young son talk with Carla Finkielstein in her lab
At right, Scott "Ponch" Frank and his son, Hagen, speak with Carla Finkielstein at her lab at Steger Hall during a 2018 visit.

Finkielstein’s research team of graduate and undergraduate students has shown that circadian rhythms, the daily process that synchronizes the body’s physiology and behavior to environmental signals, such as light/dark cycles, also controls the decision of the cell to undergo division.

“One of the most familiar biological processes that follows a circadian rhythm is our 24-hour sleep/wake cycle,” Janoski said. “Biological clocks are essentially an organism’s internal ‘timekeepers’ that regulate its circadian rhythms. Progression throughout the cell cycle towards division involves an orchestrated series of events that progress on a precisely controlled schedule in sync with the circadian system and the environment.”

Janoski said a primary cause of most cancers occurs when these coordinated cycles are disrupted. “Our laboratory focuses on investigating the mechanisms underlying the timely regulation of cell division that precisely occurs every 24 hours and how the interplay between the circadian clock and the cell cycle influence cancer initiation and progression,” he added.

Finkielstein’s lab also is studying the best “window-of-time” in which doctors can deliver cancer treatments for the greatest drug efficacy in the patient while minimizing often harsh side-effects. “This will result in a better quality of life for the patient and during treatment,” she said. “This is not trivial as many patients quit therapies because of their aggressive side effects.”

Ponch Frank and son Hagen visited Finkielstein’s lab in October 2018, which was Breast Cancer Awareness Month at the time, to initiate the scholarship. During the visit, an emotionally moved Finkielstein said, “I want this disease to end in my lifetime. I am just tired of its devastating effects.” 

“I am honored by the Frank family’s decision of considering our research program worthy of their support,” Finkielstein said. “I followed Mitzi’s blogs and learnt how brave, loving, and determined she was. I take that as her legacy for us in the lab, a continuous reminder that the fight against breast cancer is not over yet, despite each step moving us closer than ever to a cure.”

Ponch Frank said he hopes funds can be used to not only find a cure for breast and other forms of cancer, but also help ease long-term care and treatment for those with cancer to make their journeys less fraught.

“Getting to talk to Carla was surely the highlight for me,” he said of his fall 2018 visit. “As an alumnus and, more importantly, as someone who lost his wife to this horrible disease, it was rewarding to be able to see and hear those with the knowledge to help combat this disease.”

He added, “I want folks, when they hear about this scholarship, to get this: Mitzi L. Frank was a wife, mother, daughter, sister, friend, co-worker, alumna, and she was just like someone you know and love. She lived a fulfilling life and Virginia Tech played a huge role in that. The ability for Hagen and myself, with the help of others, to keep her legacy alive while aiding students to help research and care for those diagnosed is the greatest way we can keep her memory vibrant and make her journey through multiple treatments have meaning to others.”

Janoski is seeking a doctoral degree in molecular biology, with plans to secure a job as a postdoctoral researcher after graduation and then transition to an academic faculty position at a research university.

“Jesse is an insightful and motivated student that enjoys solving complex biological problems, exactly what we need in the breast cancer field,” Finkielstein added. "He combines great work, camaraderie, an incredible personality, and humor in the same package."

Further reading:

Timing is everything: New discoveries in circadian rhythms provide insight into cancer treatment

Memory Lane: Virginia Tech Magazine writes about the Franks' philanthropy in this Fall 2014 feature

ipilateslife: Mitzi Frank's personal blog, including stories on battle against cancer