Allison O'Connell

Allison O'Connell
2019 NCI Ruth L. Kirschstein National Service Award (F30)

"[Don't] forget faculty are on your side as well! Seek continuous feedback from your mentor, thesis committee, and other faculty in your program."

About Allison O'Connell

Allison is a 4th year MD/PhD Candidate in the Tumor Biology program at Biomedical Graduate Education (BGE). She was recently awarded with the Ruth L. Kirschstein National Service Award (F30) by the National Cancer Institute.

What made you choose Georgetown University for your MD/PhD degree?

Georgetown offers exception research experiences, particularly in the fields of cancer and neuroscience. The Tumor Biology PhD program is one of the top ten programs in the country. Beyond the obvious educational opportunities, Georgetown graduate programs have wonderful communities. The Tumor Biology program is small enough that students can receive individualized and focused mentorship from the faculty and support from fellow students yet large enough that there is a diverse set of research interests and perspectives.

What is your research focus? What sparked your interest in it?

My research focuses on pancreatic cancer and how patient’s immune system interacts with the scar tissue, called stroma, that surrounds the cancer. Many researchers have investigated how the immune system interacts with cancer and how the stroma interacts with cancer, but little research has been done on how the immune system interacts with the stroma. Since all these components are integral to cancer growth, having a deeper understanding of these interactions can lead to improved understanding of cancer biology and ultimately new therapeutic options for pancreatic cancer patients.

What is the name of the award you received? Please provide a brief description about the award.

I was awarded the Ruth L. Kirschstein National Service Award (F30) by the National Cancer Institute. The purpose of this predoctoral fellowship is to enhance the integrated research and clinical training of promising predoctoral students who intend careers as physician/clinician-scientists. The application includes an integrated research and clinical training plan and a dissertation research project in scientific health-related fields. The fellowship experience is expected to clearly enhance the potential to develop into a productive, independent physician/clinician-scientist.

What does this award mean to you?

Receiving this award is a tremendous honor. In addition to paying for my PhD tuition and stipend, the funding continues after I return to medical school and will offset the costs of medical school tuition and provide a stipend during these years. For MD/PhD candidates, training at Georgetown is expected to take 8 years. Hence, this award provides relief from some of the financial-related concerns of such a lengthy educational program. Furthermore, it affirms that my proposed thesis research is not only possible but also encouraged and supported after being reviewed by a committee of experts in the field.

Do you have tips for other students interested in applying for this award or other external awards?

Don’t reinvent the wheel! There are many students at Georgetown who have previously applied for this award, both in and out of your program, that are happy and willing to help. Ask them for advice on how to tackle this 100+ page application. And don’t forget faculty are on your side as well! Seek continuous feedback from your mentor, thesis committee, and other faculty in your program.

If you could meet one scientist, who would you want to meet and why?

I would meet Rosalind Franklin, an English chemist and X-ray crystallographer whose work was central to the understanding of the molecular structures of DNA, RNA, viruses, coal and graphite. Her research laid the foundation for the development of the double-helix model of DNA structure, for which James Watson, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine for in 1962. A friend and biographer of Franklin claimed that sexism was a large obstacle to Franklin throughout her scientific career and ultimately contributed to her not receiving the Nobel Prize for her work. However, Franklin’s sister alleges that Franklin would have been upset by these claims of sexism throughout her career. It would be incredible to meet with this brilliant mind and discuss both her outstanding scientific contributions as well as her opinions on sexism in STEM.