Vaccine Research Changes Another Life

One year in the lab becomes five
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Mar 12, 2008

I came to Duke as a medical student on the straight MD path, but as I started my third year -- my research year -- I had already begun thinking about doing more extended research. I had read John Sampson’s papers regarding cancer vaccines and about training the immune system to combat brain tumors, and they really aligned with my interests, regarding both neurosurgery and cutting-edge cancer research.

John was an energetic young researcher with a lot of resources. More importantly, he was a successful neurosurgeon-scientist, which is remarkable. I had never seen someone before who could excel so noticeably in both clinical and research arenas, and he quickly became a role model for me as a result. He really understood my career goals, which were similar, and what was supposed to be one year in the lab turned into five. I switched over to the Medical Scientist Training Program at Duke, which allows a student to earn both MD and PhD degrees.

Working with John, I was able to do great bench-top research, yet also apply it directly to patients and see our work come to fruition.

At the outset, he had me write review articles to gain background in the field, and then had me write grants in addition to my papers to give me a taste of the practical -- he really did a great job of mentoring me. He would mark up draft after draft of everything I wrote with red ink, really taking the time to ensure the finished products were perfect. I would get e-mails from him, sent at four in the morning, after he spent an hour looking at my work.

I authored about ten papers during my time with John, and two of our projects have gone on to clinical trials. Our research was widely recognized, and I had several opportunities to give talks at conferences. When I interviewed for residency, a lot of people already knew me and our work.

While John worked with me very closely when necessary, he also allowed me to make the mistakes I needed to learn from and to therefore develop my own breadth of experience; as a result, the PhD was truly my own.

Peter Fecci, MD, PhD, earned his doctoral degree while working on cancer vaccines in John Sampson’s lab. He is now a neurosurgery intern at Massachusetts GeneralHospital.