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From Cancer Patient to Ph.D. Student

Author standing in front of a poster presentation

The author taking part in a 2018 poster session as a participant in Einstein’s Summer Undergraduate Research Program.

I have always thought that one of my main purposes in life is to make other people’s life journeys easier. This was especially true whenever the question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” arose. Growing up, I’d thought of four possibilities: being a chef, a journalist, a scientist, or a teacher.

I started my college career at Suffolk County Community College, thinking I would take a few courses and see if any of them revealed what I wanted to pursue as a career. A few months before graduation I was still struggling to decide which path to take. I just couldn’t narrow my interests to a single field. As it turned out, classes at college wouldn’t drive my decision.

During February of my last year at community college, a friend pointed out a bump on my neck. It was something I hadn’t noticed before. I returned home from school that night and showed it to my parents, thinking it was something weird but insignificant. After weeks of avoiding doctors’ appointments, I finally visited our family physician. She saw the bump and said it was nothing to worry about—but she sent me for X-rays and a biopsy just to be sure.

A Change of Direction

I remember waiting at the doctor’s office to hear the results. After what felt like hours, my parents and I were called into a room. The doctor came in, shook my parents’ hands, and got right to the point. As it turned out, my bump was one of three growing on my thyroid—each of them cancerous. I remember her exact words: “I’m very sorry to say this, but it is thyroid cancer.” She kept talking, but I heard nothing else after the word “cancer.” My feet went completely numb. I looked at my parents and saw expressions on their faces that I had never seen before. I couldn’t process what was going on. “Cancer? I have cancer. I can’t have cancer; I have class in a few hours. I’m graduating and going away to school next year. I don’t have time for cancer.”

My mom got up, walked to my side, and hugged me, and suddenly I was dragged back into the nightmare that had become my reality. I decided to start listening carefully to the doctor as she discussed treatment options. Though she had some good news; that my odds were very good and that I had a great chance of beating this I was terrified of what lay ahead.

The next few months were filled with doctors’ appointments, surgery, treatment, and, of course, finals. My last week at Suffolk County Community College was spent driving back and forth to the hospital for treatment and to school for exams. I had my last round of treatment on graduation day.

The diagnosis and the following months were draining and terrifying, but the worst part was seeing how everyone around me was affected by my diagnosis. Telling those I cared about that I had cancer and witnessing how their lives changed as a result affected me deeply. That reaction became the driving force behind my desire to do research and pursue my Ph.D. in biomedical sciences. I love to cook, write, and teach, but I now didn’t think those jobs would give me the opportunity to make the kind of difference that I wanted to make. I wanted to be in the field, doing research to push science forward and offer solutions for families who might also be struggling with a cancer diagnosis, or preventing a diagnosis entirely. I wanted to be someone who could work at the bench on projects that might provide comfort to people going through struggles similar to those my family and I had faced.

Life in the Labs

After graduating from community college, I transferred to the New York Institute of Technology (NYIT), where I received a bachelor of science degree in biotechnology. While at NYIT I was lucky enough to work in the labs of Randy Stout, Ph.D. studying gap junctions and their role in disease and Bryan Gibb, Ph.D. studying the relationships between bacteria and bacteriophages isolated from kitchen sponges. NYIT provided incredible mentorship, and ample opportunity for research exposure. I experienced what life was like at the bench and learned lab techniques I still use. These experiences convinced me that I could see myself working in a lab, and helped me get accepted to the Summer Undergraduate Research Program (SURP) at Einstein where, in the summer of 2018, I worked in the neuroscience lab of David Spray. Ph.D., continuing my work on gap junctions. During my summer at Einstein, I fell in love with the community of students and faculty and knew this would be where I wanted to pursue my Ph.D.

Six years after my diagnosis, I am in remission and lucky enough to be a graduate student at Einstein, working in the labs of Cristina Montagna, Ph.D., and Jan Vijg, Ph.D., studying glioblastoma multiforme (GBM), an aggressive and devastating brain cancer. I have been working in their labs for over a year, and I already feel as though I have grown immensely as a scientist.

Being able to work in an environment surrounded by scientists passionate about research is incredibly rewarding. The skills I am learning at the bench and the scientific knowledge I gain from having conversations with colleagues and collaborators and attending conferences are a vital part of my training. I believe all my experiences will set me on the path toward meaningful research and helping others who face the same obstacles that I had to face. Having my own projects and studying a disease such as GBM are more than I could have imagined possible when I was sitting in the doctor’s office six years ago. I couldn’t be more excited to see where my research and career will take me.

I still believe that my ultimate purpose is to help others. My diagnosis is what gave me the direction and inspiration I needed to pursue science and research as a career—and for that I am grateful.

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  • Bill Albert July 9, 2021, 6:05 PM

    Olivia’s message brings to mind of how many of us go through life not knowing what our special gifts are? Worst yet we know what it is and fail to make use of it.
    When our true gift is revealed,ability and joy will go hand in hand, as confirmed by Olivia’s message.
    Olivia is a special young lady. She recognized her gift and is unselfishly using it to contribute to the world.
    Thank you for sharing your inspirational message.