In high school, Neal Lacey didn’t like science, so much so he devised creative ways to get around some classes. Then he came to New College of Florida. Now he is headed to a prestigious two-year research program at the National Institutes of Health near Washington, D.C.
Lacey is the recipient of a Cancer Research Training Award from the National Cancer Institute, part of NIH. He will be working with Dr. Luca Gattinoni, whose research focuses on T-cell-based immunotherapies – essentially modifying and training some of the body’s own immune cells to recognize and destroy a specific cancer.
Lacey actually received offers from multiple labs at the NIH, but chose this one for its potential as a game-changer. “Luca’s research is incredible,” Lacey said. “People are racing to figure out ways to improve T-cell-based cancer immunotherapies. A number of the projects that Luca has offered me are high-risk, high-reward, and at this stage in my training, I can afford to take these risks.”
He also appreciates that Gattinoni is a physician, who sees and treats patients. After his NCI stay, Lacey may pursue a graduate program known as a MD/PhD, which would train him as both medical doctor and research scientist. He’s also considering a career in public policy, because it would allow him to shape medical education or funding allocations for medical research. “With time I hope to develop an understanding of the many factors that influence my ability to educate and mentor, perform research and care for patients.”
The common thread in those careers is the ability to help other people achieve their goals. “I just really enjoy mentoring,” he said. “If I could, I would really like a job where I could help other people do cool things.”
At New College, Lacey began his studies in chemistry, and points to professor Steven Shipman as “the reason I want to do science.” Shipman, he said, taught chemistry as a means for solving real-world problems that scientists face. “I began to see science as more of a bunch of arguments, which is, for some reason, more manageable to me than a bunch of facts.”
Eventually, Lacey’s interests shifted to the chemistry of cells – he marvels at the micro-environments in cells, where pH values can vary even in a microscopic space, allowing processes to function. So he worked in the lab of professor Suzanne Sherman, who in turn connected him with an internship in the lab of New College alumnus Justin Walensky, a chemistry professor at University of Missouri.
Lacey moved on to two years of summer research at the Lovelace Respiratory Research Institute (LRRI) in New Mexico, where he examined the interactions of certain proteins in the production of mucous, which can contribute to the development of COPD, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
He credits New College professors Amy Clore, Tyrone Ryba (the LRRI liaison), and Sherman with his recent successes. He recalled his first ISP in Sherman’s lab: “She told me, ‘Neal, you’re a thinker. I like thinkers.’ And right there, I thought, ‘I’m smart, I can actually do science.’ It really changed my perspective.”