How I Became a Cancer Immunotherapy Researcher

I am a member of the Early Career Scientists committee for the Society for the Immunotherapy of Cancer (SITC). The committee members were recently asked to “spend a few moments thinking about how we arrived at where we are in our careers today”. Specifically, they asked what sparked my initial interest in cancer immunotherapy. I decided that I could identify 5 things that explained how I came to be a cancer immunotherapy researcher:


  1. I took an immunology class my senior year in college and simply thought it was the coolest system in the body. So many arms of defense in this system; some were very specific forms of attack while others were more general; all resulting in a system that could combat every type of pathogen imaginable. Both those hiding inside of cells, as well as those in-between our cells or floating around freely in the blood. Discovering that there were cells in the body called “killer“ T cells…and that they go around recognizing and killing other damaged or infected cells but not healthy ones? Come on!  I was hooked.
  2. Once I decided on research, I was clearly most excited and passionate about projects where I could easily see how they would impact human health and disease. So biomedical research was where my passion was.  Basic science was still fun, and interesting, but I always had to figure out the biomedical impact or application for it to make sense to me.
  3. But what aspect of biomedical research? There were so many interesting diseases that negatively impacted public health. HIV was a major area of intense research around the world at the time, and heart disease was the number one killer in the US…. But in the end, my personal family history is what drove me to pursue cancer research. As I explained, in my overly dramatic personal statement, on my graduate school applications (which is why, till this day, I don’t laugh at the the ridiculously dramatic intros I read in graduate student applications every year :-), both of my maternal grandparents died of cancer before I was old enough to remember them.  And it seemed like everyone else I knew had also lost a close family member to some form of the disease. So there you have it; Personal loss and the experiences of close friends with similar loss is what inspired me to study cancer.
  4. So I needed a PhD to do biomedical research. And the immune system was integral to human health and disease. So it was a pretty clear and natural fit to pursue my PhD in an Immunology Program…..where….for 5.5 years…..I….did NOT… cancer.When I was an undergraduate, there was probably 1 sentence or a paragraph about the immune systems role in controlling cancer cells, and I latched on to that, and always wanted to learn more about that process. In graduate school, I would read anything I came across that linked immunology and cancer. However, the field of “cancer immunotherapy”, as we now know it, wasn’t really a big “thing” yet in 1997. In fact, there was still quite a bit of debate about how significant the immune system was in controlling cancer growth etc. So I earned my PhD in a basic viral immunology lab studying the ability of adenovirus to persist in human lymphocytes. Yes, viruses. In lymphocytes. And no cancer. Yet. **
  5. After receiving excellent PhD training, I was ready to find a post-doc position. Enter CANCER IMMUNOTHERAPY. I knew this was what I wanted to work on for my long-term career goal so I simply began looking online for labs doing tumor immunology and cancer immunotherapy research. I found several labs conducting research in these areas, and I applied, and I interviewed.  And guess what? All my virology knowledge from my PhD ended up coming in handy. The NIH tumor immunobiology lab, where I was hired to do my post-doctoral work, used VIRAL vectors to stimulate immune responses against tumors. Full Circle.

Getting back to the basics: In the end, it really does all come full circle and get back to the basics.  Most recently, my lab has become interested in better defining molecular signals that come from normal cells that have become “stressed”.  We are interested in better defining signals from such that cells that could influence the function and activity of various immune cells.  As well as defining differences in the signals produced between malignant and non-malignant cells.

**It’s worthwhile to note (and I remind new PhD students of this quite often) that you do not have to earn you PhD degree in what you KNOW you ultimately want to work on for your long-term career. The PhD is to TRAIN you how to actually BE a PhD. And for you to learn a LOT about a general area of research that interests you, and that likely has many applications. Immunology, for example, could be applied to most any disease or public health issue.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *