Tim O’Connell thought he would attend medical school and practice medicine one day. When his father passed away from cancer, it changed the trajectory of his career. After finding his passion in the flourishing area of cancer immunology, O’Connell pursued a Ph.D. at NYMC. Today, nearing the completion of his degree, O’Connell is eager to join the nation’s expanding ranks of cancer immunotherapy pioneers who are fast changing the way we think about and treat cancer.
Tell us a little about your personal journey. What motivated you to choose this path? Was there a specific trigger or moment?
When I was in college, my father, who was just 47 years old, passed away from a very aggressive form of cancer. Although I had a clear vision at the time of going to medical school and was on a pre-med track, my interests changed drastically. I came to believe I could make a bigger difference working in the field of cancer drug discovery as a scientist rather than treating individual patients as a physician. I worked for seven years in the biotech industry, conducting drug discovery research, knowing that I wanted to eventually return to school for a Ph.D. in cancer. It was just a matter of when. When all the factors aligned, nearly 20 years after my father passed away, I began my Ph.D. at NYMC.
The Ph.D. can be a long and rigorous experience, especially challenging for someone like yourself who is raising three children at the same time. Now that you are nearing the finish line, can you reflect back on the years in the program?
When I entered the program, I had three goals: to develop a deep understanding of cancer; to study and understand immunology, especially as it pertains to cancer; and to gain a mentor. My experience has far exceeded my expectations in all three areas and has turned out to be so much more than a degree. It has been infinitely challenging, and forced me to be intellectually creative and scientifically agile, and I have grown tremendously as a result of these challenges.
What lead you to NYMC?
Cancer immunotherapy is an incredibly exciting area right now, especially since Vice President Joe Biden has put forth immunotherapy as a major component of The National Cancer Moonshot Initiative. I was fortunate to see him speak about The Cancer Moonshot at American Association of Cancer Research 2016 and 2017 annual meetings. Both speeches were very inspiring and confirmed my desire to be an active participant in this field.
Since NYMC has a strong cancer biology program and the Department of Microbiology and Immunology offers many excellent courses in immunology, NYMC was a clear choice for me. The intersection of cancer and immunology appears to be the future of cancer research, and NYMC has quickly moved to the forefront.
What is your area of research?
My dissertation is currently entitled: Does Androgen Attenuation of PD-L1 Expression in Thyroid Cancer Modulate Disease Incidence?
Briefly, my work involves the study of thyroid cancer and the disparity in incidence between men and women. Women develop thyroid cancer at a ratio of 3:1 as compared to men. Our lab has been investigating this question for some time now and my work builds on the research of previous graduate students. I have found that androgen treatment of a de-differentiated thyroid cancer cell line (with an active androgen receptor), leads to the decrease of PD-L1, an immune modulatory immune checkpoint molecule that plays an important role in cancer progression. We suspect that a decrease in PD-L1 in males may be playing a role in stemming cancer progression, hence, androgen provides protection in males against thyroid cancer. This finding could provide evidence for immunotherapy as a future treatment for thyroid cancer.
Where do you see yourself after you finish the Ph.D.?
I really like the excitement, teamwork and challenge of a biotech company and since I am already familiar with that environment through my previous work experience, I will likely explore opportunities in that area. However, I also find the collegiality and the freedom of exploration of academia to be an excellent and inspiring environment to conduct research. I think it’s safe to say that I am interested in both avenues at the moment, but I am primarily focused on getting to the point where I can thoroughly explore the available options.
What NYMC faculty member has had the greatest impact on your education and why?
I work in the lab of Dr. Jan Geliebter, [Jan Geliebter, Ph.D., professor, Department of Microbiology and Immunology and Otolaryngology], so Dr. Geliebter has clearly had the greatest impact on my experience at NYMC. He is leading some groundbreaking scientific research in the areas of thyroid cancer and I am very proud to be a member of his team. He also inspires me to reach for higher goals, and sometimes physically shows me what he means by jumping up on to the benchtop in the lab. Dr. Raj Tiwari [Raj Tiwari, Ph.D., professor, Department of Microbiology and Immunology and Otolaryngology and Graduate Program Director] and Dr. Frances Belloni [Frances Belloni, Ph.D., professor, physiology, Graduate School of Basic Medical Sciences] have both also played a major role in my success here at NYMC. All three of these individuals are very generous with their time and knowledge and I feel very fortunate to be able to call each of them a mentor.
What advice would you give to incoming graduate students?
Although I suppose it is the case at every college, there is just so much knowledge at NYMC—so much to be shared. I would tell students to try their best to tap into all the knowledge that’s accessible to them.
Having a mentor is also an essential tool both during your studies and after you graduate. I would encourage incoming students to be sure and pursue a mentor. I knew I wanted to have a strong relationship with a mentor during my time at NYMC, and happy to say I don’t just have one mentor—but several. Many faculty members are happy and willing to actively mentor students.
What accomplishment are you most proud of at NYMC?
I am very proud to have started a small scholarship in my father’s name here at NYMC. The goal of the scholarship is to provide a summer research student at NYMC with an award for dedicating their summer to cancer research. In 2016, The Bart O’Connell Cancer Research Award was given to a student participating in the STAR (Summer Trainees in Academic Research) program, as well as to an NYMC medical student who conducted excellent cancer research over the summer. In 2017, we are going to again be providing an award to a STAR student, as well as to a graduating Ph.D. student who showed exemplary skill in cancer research. We are currently working to have the Ph.D. award given annually as part of the graduation ceremony. We are also currently working to launch a website and gain 501(c)(3) status. Most charities are designed to raise awareness but I really wanted to start something that encouraged and rewarded action.