Q&A: How Jessica Marie Konen ’10 discovered her path to cancer research at Transy

A postdoctoral fellow at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Jessica Marie Konen ’10 is researching immunotherapy in the treatment of lung cancer. We asked her to tell us about her research and how it relates to her time at Transy.

Where did you grow up and why did you choose Transy?

I grew up in northern Kentucky, a small town called Fort Thomas. When I began looking for colleges, I knew I wanted to go to a small liberal arts institution, mostly because the idea of a big state school was terrifying. And I knew the reputation of schools like Transy. Though I had my pick of a few schools, I ultimately chose Transy for several reasons. The biology program was highly esteemed; the campus was gorgeous and felt like home; and I knew I could see myself roaming it for four years.

What kind of cancer research are you doing?  

Jessica Marie Konen ’10

I am working in the field of immunotherapy for treatment of lung cancer. Basically, we are trying to find ways to kick-start a patient’s own immune system to do the heavy lifting and combat the cancer for us. This field has revolutionized cancer therapy in many tumor types, and has even led to some cures of late-stage diseases which previously had little hope. However, like many cancer treatments, there are issues with resistance – the tumor smartly finds different ways to shut the immune response down. So I am working on finding new treatment strategies to combine with immunotherapy and overcome resistance, in hopes of helping even more patients achieve durable responses to immunotherapy.

What inspires you to devote your life to this work?

Despite decades of research efforts, improvement in technologies to allow for precision medicine, and millions of dollars flooding the field, little improvement has been seen in the cancer death rates, especially for lung cancer. However, that is now changing – patients now have new hope and that hope lies in immunotherapy. I am inspired to be able to work in this field that is changing people’s lives by giving them their lives back.

…patients now have new hope and that hope lies in immunotherapy. I am inspired to be able to work in this field that is changing people’s lives by giving them their lives back.

Jessica Marie Konen

How did Transy prepare you for success in graduate school at Emory University? (Konen earned a Ph.D. in cancer biology.)

One of the reasons I went to Transy was because of the reputation of the biology and chemistry departments. I knew I wanted to do something in science, but wasn’t sure what my options were besides medical school. The biology professors were integral in mentoring me along my career path toward graduate school. They helped me find summer research opportunities, experiences which ultimately were the reason I was accepted into graduate school. Without the encouragement and guidance of my biology professors, I am unsure that I would’ve known the right path toward success in research.

Without the encouragement and guidance of my biology professors, I am unsure that I would’ve known the right path toward success in research.
 

Jessica Marie Konen
William and Catherine Rice Award (2016)
NRSA fellowship recipient, NIH (2013)
Cancer Biology Scholar of the Year (2012)

Is there anything you’d like to tell prospective students who might be considering Transy?

I look back on my time at Transy with fondness and joy. I met so many amazing people while there, people which I consider part of my family even a decade later. If given the choice, I would definitely make the same decision to spend the best and most formative four years of my life at Transy, no question!