Feature Stories Campus Events

Confronting Cancer with Research Erin An '19 has spent time this summer researching immunotherapy treatments for pediatric cancer at the University of Virginia.

Erin An ’19

Erin An ’19
Hometown: El Paso, Texas
Majors: Religion, Pre-med track

Q: What kind of work are you doing in Charlottesville this summer?

While working with a former W&L alum, Dr. Daniel “Trey” Lee, I have had the opportunity to conduct research at U.Va Health System in the Department of Pediatrics and Hematology. We are developing potential CAR T cells immunotherapies for a specific type of pediatric brain tumor, DIPG. Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Gliomas (DIPG) are very aggressive brain tumors in children, and they are difficult to treat due to their precarious location in the brain. However, that may all change with the promising potential of CAR T cell immunotherapies.

Q: What made you want to be part of this work?

While shadowing and volunteering last summer in the oncology department at a hospital in Spain, I formed relationships with the cancer patients there as they came in for their chemotherapy treatments. Until then, I did not realize how harshly those treatments attacked their bodies. During that summer, I decided to pursue pediatric cancer research. CAR T cell immunotherapies are so innovative because they are more personalized treatments, different from chemotherapies, and the goal is to create more effective and specific treatments with less side effects.

Q: What does an average day for you look like on this project?

My day normally starts at 7 a.m., when I go for a run and have quiet time before starting work at 9:30. I do different protocols on a daily basis; some days I do plasmid minipreps, restriction enzyme digests and transductions to create our different CAR T cell constructs, while other days we do tissue culture, check on the mice in the vivarium and perform stereotaxic brain injection of the tumor cells into the mice. Once we successfully transduce the T cells into CAR T cells, we can give the treatments to the mice with brain tumors and look for promising results. After work, I read outside, go hiking or visit the lakes in this area.

Q: What is the most interesting knowledge you’ve picked up while doing this work?

I did not realize that CAR T cells were so versatile. We’re not only trying to develop CAR T cells to treat DIPG brain tumors, but also trying to develop a different type of CAR T cells that will minimize the side effects (cytokine release syndrome) of CAR T cell treatments!

Q: Has it been challenging in any way? If so, how?

Initially, conducting research in an entirely new field was challenging, but researching in a hospital puts things into perspective and has challenged me to confront the disease that we are trying to combat face-to-face. We have to monitor the effects of the brain tumor in the mice, and it is difficult to imagine that similar effects are also occurring in the pediatric patients. The reality of this disease makes me work harder to successfully develop the immunotherapies.

Q: Has your work this summer impacted your future plans in any way?

Because of this research, I want to continue to pursue the development of novel therapeutic therapies in cancer research.

Q: How did W&L prepare you for this experience?

Through my liberal arts education as a pre-med and religion major, W&L has challenged me to  analyze critically, not only in academics but also with real life problems. I have realized that medical research is not only about knowing the science behind it; it also necessitates creativity and thinking from multiple perspectives, and all of those skills were fostered by the W&L education.

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More about Erin

What extracurricular activities do you do?

-ESOL community coordinator
-Intervarsity Small Group Leader
-Burish Intern at Maury River Middle School
-Biochemistry research student
-University Ambassador
-Peer Tutor
-Cellist in University Orchestra
-PAACE and SAIL officer (last two years)
-EMT (ride-along and volunteer)

Why did you choose your major?

Originally, I was a chemistry major; however, I decided to further my religion studies. People are often shocked that I am a religion major on the pre-medical track, however my religious studies are not incongruent to my pre-medical studies, but have fostered my critical analysis skills and have challenged me to really understand the different perspectives that we study in the different religions. I love the Religion Department because they truly care for their students and challenge us to look deeper into the different philosophers and the different religions that we study.

Has anyone on campus inspired you?

There have been so many professors, students and staff that have inspired me. It is so difficult to just choose one. I would say that Professor Kyle Friend has inspired me the most, as not only is he my research mentor and professor, but a life mentor overall. He has not only challenged me in the academic setting in his lab and viochem class, but also has challenged me to really pursue my passions. He was one of the many professors who encouraged me to further my religious studies along with my pre-medical studies and hopefully pursue a MD/Divinity dual degree in the future. I am so thankful for Dr. Friend and all the inspiring professors and students who have supported me to pursue all my passions and studies at W&L.

What’s your personal motto?

“This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.”  Psalms 118:24

 Favorite place to eat in Lexington? What do you order?

Napa Thai. I love their spicy drunken noodles.

Favorite W&L memory:

Dinners with friends and science library hangouts. I know that everyone at W&L works super hard, but all the learning has been enjoyable due to the W&L community!

What’s something people wouldn’t guess about you?

I wrestled on an all boys’ wrestling team in high school.

Why did you choose W&L?

I chose W&L because I was offered a ROTC scholarship here, however, I decided not to do ROTC anymore. I could not picture myself being at any other college than W&L. It is truly an unexpected blessing to be here!