Immunotherapy has changed the way that we treat cancer by harnessing a patient’s own immune system to fight the disease. Cancer cells evade the immune system in part by expressing cell surface proteins that provide inhibitory signals to immune effector cells. These proteins bind cognate receptors on T-cells and other cells of the immune system, generating an immunosuppressive response and allowing cancerous cells to escape immune surveillance and proliferate. Proteins involved in modulating the immune response are referred to as immune checkpoint proteins; newer treatments have been developed to inhibit these immunomodulatory checkpoints to allow the immune system to effectively fight the cancer. The B7 family of immune checkpoint proteins is commonly targeted as a mechanism of treating cancer, and clinical treatments for inhibition of negative-costimulatory receptors CTLA-4 and PD-1 have shown unprecedented response in melanoma and non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) respectively.
Recently, new members of the B7 family were discovered including the inhibitory protein B7-H4. In NSCLC, high expression of B7-H4 is observed with undetectable levels in normal tissues. The cognate receptor and downstream pathways of B7-H4 are currently unknown, but there is growing evidence that B7-H4 is a promising target for immunotherapy. My research aims toward designing and engineering a novel system to study the mechanism of action of B7-H4 with hopes of identifying the receptor and introducing a novel target to the field of immunotherapy.
Through the institutional collaboration between Weill Cornell and Memorial Sloan Kettering, I’m able to conduct my research at MSK surrounded by brilliant scientists. Our community is dedicated to saving the lives of cancer patients, and the culture alone motivates me to succeed. In the Tri-Institute, it’s not uncommon to hold the elevator door for a Nobel Laureate or stumble upon a seminar that inspires your next big experiment. The opportunities are unmatched and the support systems I’ve built has helped me to take advantage of them.
As far as staying motivated in my research, the potential to discover a novel target that may translate to a beneficial therapeutic is a huge motivator. I feel so lucky to be conducting research that may directly affect the lives of others. When times get tough, I try to remind myself of the importance of what I do and what our community is trying to achieve.
Weill Cornell checked all of the boxes for me when I was searching for graduate school programs. For one, you can’t beat the location! I could go on and on about why I love New York City, but I’ll keep it short––friends, food, entertainment, people, culture, public transportation––the list goes on.
After deciding I wanted to live in a big city while I am still young, I focused on finding a program that had everything I was looking for. I wasn’t sure what type of research I wanted to do, so I looked for schools that would allow students to rotate in labs before choosing their thesis lab. I also knew that I wanted to do translational research over basic science. One thing I love about WCGS is the vast number of outstanding researchers and its flexibility to join a lab. Even after committing to the pharmacology program, I had the option to join any lab in any program. I ended up finding a lab that is perfect for my interests and has fantastic mentorship. Ideally, I wanted the opportunity to TA courses, but not required as part of my training. I also wanted a close-knit student community, and Weill Cornell exceeded my expectations in that sense. I have made life-long friends in my time here and these friendships make a huge difference in maintaining your work-life balance.
Our students have a lot of fun during their graduate training. We all work really hard, but we also play hard. Graduate school is a huge undertaking and is unavoidably stressful at times, but WCGS does a fantastic job of taking care of their students and making sure we are enjoying our time here as much as possible. There are so many opportunities to get your much needed R&R including club sports teams, school-sponsored happy hours, holiday parties, yoga club, wellness events (last year there were free back massages and puppies!) to name a few. I am honestly so happy to be here and I think that is somewhat rare at other institutions.
My most rewarding experience so far was probably passing my Admissions to Candidacy Exam (ACE) in my second year and celebrating with my friends and coworkers. I had a lot of doubts before starting graduate school and passing the ACE was a huge accomplishment for me––to my surprise, I actually crushed it! I got tons of positive feedback from my thesis committee and they have continued to support me throughout my thesis research. I can’t say enough about the support system I have and how rewarding it is to succeed with people cheering you on.
In my first year, I won second place for poster presentation at the Pharmacology retreat and a second place at the Vincent Du Vigneaud Research Symposium in my second year. Additionally, I was awarded the T32 training grant for two years in my third year.
I’m not totally sure what I want to do in the future. I’m interested in working in industry as a scientist, but I’m also really interested in business development and biotech startups. One of the most intriguing careers I’ve seen so far is with Flagship Pioneering, a company that searches for unmet needs in healthcare and designs scientific ventures to help unravel those needs. Weill Cornell and MSK are great about hosting events to introduce Ph.D. students and post docs to the vast career opportunities available to us. I believe I have a great mix of scientific knowledge, character, and creativity and I really want a career that allows me to use all three. No matter which career path I pursue, I will be sure to keep mentoring young scientists, which is something that I’m really passionate about.
I would advise new graduate students to ask questions and seek out opportunities. There are so many chances to gain experience and learn outside the lab––take advantage of the available resources while we are here!