SOA student's summer in lab fuels career ambitions

August 30, 2022
two people sitting in front of a glass hood for research hold vials of liquid up to the light
Eva Allen thought she would spend her summer internship watching others – instead she found herself acting as a full member of the team. Photo by Kristin Lee

A summer in a lab at MUSC Hollings Cancer Center may end up changing one student’s career path.

Eva Allen, a senior at Charleston County School of the Arts, interned in the lab of Leonardo Ferreira, Ph.D. What was meant as an internship of a couple of hours a week bloomed into a fully immersed lab experience and a passion for research for the young singer.

“I knew I wanted to go into medicine in some sort of fashion, but I always thought that I wanted to be a doctor,” Allen said. “And now that I see this side of medicine, medical research, I've kind of changed my mind a little bit. I might want to take a few years to work in a lab and be able to have that innovation side of medicine instead of just treat, treat, treat patients.

“Now I'm thinking about maybe doing a Ph.D. instead or an M.D.-Ph.D.”

Allen is already pretty familiar with the patient side of medicine. She has Type I diabetes, diagnosed when she was just 2 ½ years old.

Just in her young lifetime, she’s seen how innovation can change patients’ lives.

“My entire life is different from when I was first diagnosed,” she said. “I mean, my mom used to wake up every single night and check my blood sugar. For the first 10 years of my life, she did not get a full night of sleep. Well, now I have a continuous glucose monitor that checks my blood sugar every five minutes and sends it to my phone and to my mom’s phone. And it’ll alarm if my blood sugar goes out of range.”

By working in Ferreira’s lab, Allen got to contribute to research that could help her and other people with Type I diabetes and other autoimmune diseases.

Ferreira works with regulatory T-cells (Tregs) and manufactured chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T-cells, with the ultimate goal of improving immunotherapy options for people with cancer and autoimmune diseases.

“This idea that we can use the immune system to kill things – we can also use the immune system to prevent things from getting killed,” Ferreira explained. In Type I diabetes, for example, the immune system destroys cells in the pancreas that produce insulin. “That’s, I think, the next frontier of immune therapy – is to regulate inflammation of immune disease.”

Allen said she felt empowered by working on this research.

“It makes you feel like you have more control over something that you felt like you had no control over for a really long time,” she said.

And though it was intimidating at first to walk into the lab as a high school student, she said she has loved the experience.

“Everybody here has opened the door and been encouraging and just so thoughtful,” she said. “I thought I was going to walk in and be just watching.” On her first day, however, Ferreira asked her to take a seat – that she was going to work and actually take part in things.

“And I was like, ‘Oh, my God. What?’”

Ferreira’s expectation that she “do” rather than watch might have been because of how impressed he was with her. He’s worked with high school students before, he said, but never one as mature, dedicated and capable, he said.

And truth be told, her initiative reminded him of himself, he said. He recalled that when he was a freshman in college, he wanted to participate in a lab fellowship but was rebuffed because it wasn’t open to freshmen. But because he showed interest, the professor invited him to stop by the lab, and he ended up working there throughout his college years.

That kind of initiative can be important in science, he said. Similarly, Allen didn’t come to the lab through an established, official program. Instead, a science teacher at SOA asked students in Advanced Placement Biology if they’d like to work in a lab for the summer.

“She just walked in one day and was like, ‘Hey, I did research at MUSC, would any of you all be interested?’” Allen recalled. “We thought it was a program. We didn’t know that she was just cold emailing professors at the university.”

But once the teacher, Mary Kate Rumph, made the connection, it was up to Allen to sell herself. She read everything on the Ferreira Lab webpage – Googling a lot of the terms to make sure she understood – and was able to show Ferreira that she was interested in the work, not just checking off an internship box at her parents’ direction.

“I was very impressed from the get-go,” Ferreira said.

Allen said she’ll take what she’s learned through college and into grad school.

“I’ve learned so much, and I’m so thankful for this experience,” she said.

Not only has she gained practical experience in a lab, but she will also gain her first co-author credit when the lab publishes a paper later this year.