"We've been told to stay out of the sun and now the message may be changing. It's an interesting question from a public health perspective."

Amy Millen '96 is taking a closer look at the sun.

Specifically, she is studying the connection between vitamin D and breast cancer. For years, public health officials have warned people to avoid the sun to prevent skin cancer. Now, mounting research hints that some sun exposure, and the vitamin D that the skin makes while soaking up rays, may help prevent a number of health problems, including breast cancer.

"We’ve been told to stay out of the sun and now the message may be changing,” she says. “It’s an interesting question from a public health perspective.”

Millen, a nutritional epidemiologist and assistant professor at SUNY at Buffalo, is using data collected by the Women’s Health Initiative Observational Study to look for a correlation between where a woman lives and her risk of breast cancer.

She has found that women who reported spending more time outside were less likely to have developed breast cancer. So far, however, she has found no relationship between breast cancer risk and how sunny an area is at a woman’s region of residence.

In a separate project, Millen is studying genetic variation in the vitamin D receptor, which together with the active form of vitamin D can affect the expression of genes related to cell growth regulation.

“This has made a lot of people think, ‘Could genetic variation in the vitamin D receptor affect risk for different cancers?’” Millen says. Using data from the Western New York Exposures and Breast Cancer Case-Control Study, she is asking whether women with different genotypes of the vitamin D receptor are more or less likely to have breast cancer.

At Bucknell, she worked in Sally Nyquist’s cell biology laboratory, an experience that she says helped prepare her for graduate school and beyond. Says Millen, “Any sort of research experience is good because it teaches you the same set of tools that you use throughout your research career — how to ask questions and how to problem solve.”

Posted Summer 2008