For Alexa DeAngelis, who was recently awarded a Fulbright scholarship, combining a desire to help people with a passion for biochemistry means designing her own position in the budding specialty of precision medicine.Just a few weeks into her freshman year as a pre-med student at Georgetown, Alexa DeAngelis went through what she calls a “quarter-life crisis.” She questioned whether becoming a doctor, a job that’s almost universally hailed as a good career choice, was the right way for her to pursue her passion for science. “It was more something that I felt pressured into,” she says.
DeAngelis’s crisis ended when, during her years in college, she realized that she didn’t have to follow a predetermined path—she could build one for herself in the budding field of precision medicine. This new specialty aims to tailor therapies to individual patients by profiling their genetic or other biochemical traits. For DeAngelis, it’s a seamless way to combine her desire to help people with her strong interest in biochemistry research, which she’s currently immersed in as a research technician at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.
“I think it will be unique for me to come in, maybe with a dual degree, and to kind of design my own position—which is scary, also, but it’s kind of exciting because I can really figure out how I want to use what I’m interested in in a career,” says DeAngelis, who graduated from Georgetown in 2016.
The lack of role models is well-known barrier for young women in science, and setting out to forge a completely new path could conceivably magnify that problem. “I need people to be my mentors in a field that doesn’t necessarily exist yet,” DeAngelis explains. Fortunately, this is an obstacle she has been able to overcome so far. She was recently awarded a prestigious Fulbright scholarship to conduct cancer research at Sapienza University of Rome in Italy, and plans to earn a clinical degree at the UC San Francisco’s School of Pharmacy when she returns.
Bridging clinical and research interests is a goal that DeAngelis shares with Research Assistant Professor Johannes Yeh, who heads the lab she works in at CSHL. Yeh has a dental degree, and knows how difficult it can be to break free of a strictly clinical path. “Johannes is a great resource for me,” says DeAngelis, adding, “he kind of warned me that he felt very pressured to choose one way or the other—so that’s a hurdle that I’m foreseeing for the future.”
Considering that DeAngelis has been set on science since high school, it seems unlikely that she’ll ever want to abandon research. She often thinks back to her days as a high school intern at CSHL’s DNA Learning Center, where she began to think about science as a community that she enjoyed. “I got to meet a lot of other students who were interested in science, which I think also made a big difference, and I still keep in touch with some of them today,” she says.
DeAngelis is quick to admit that it hasn’t been easy to design a completely new position in science for herself, but says she feels more certain than ever that she’s on the right path. With confidence and a touch of defiance, she says, “I don’t like to settle for anything.”