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(Photo by Jehoun Allebaugh/UNC-Chapel Hill).

Alison Mercer-Smith initially became interested in medicine after being diagnosed with cancer in high school and meeting other survivors. She started her research career in high school and continued during undergrad, ultimately deciding to pursue an M.D./Ph.D. at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“One foot in two worlds is both very challenging and very valuable,” she said.

Mercer-Smith is completing her doctoral research in the UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy’s Division of Pharmacoengineering and Molecular Pharmaceutics, working with researcher Shawn Hingtgen, Ph.D. She has completed the first two years of the M.D. program and is finishing her Ph.D. while spending two days each month in a clinical environment. She was also recently selected for a predoctoral fellowship from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which will both support her research and fund her remaining two years in medical school.

While in Hingtgen’s lab, she is focusing on cell-based therapy, particularly the use of engineered neural stem cells made from skin cells to track down tumors and release tumor-killing drugs. Hingtgen said the therapies Mercer-Smith is working on have the potential to combat aggressive and lethal cancers.

“Alison’s unique drive and ‘translational mind’ make her the ideal person to move this project from discovery towards therapy,” he said. “We are truly lucky to have her as part of our team.”

She said this mechanism is especially important in treating lung cancer, which is difficult to target once it has reached the brain. The cell therapy can target disease areas that might have been missed by other local treatments. Drug re-dosing then takes place through the ventricles of the brain to treat any remaining cancer.

“It feels very personal,” she said. “We’re ultimately not trying to treat cells in a dish; [we’re] trying to treat people.”

Outside of the lab and classroom, Mercer-Smith is involved with UNC Advocates for Inclusion in Medicine and Science (AIMS). While the group has historically focused on advocacy for women on the M.D./Ph.D. track, it has expanded to promote representation for students from all underrepresented groups. She is organizing a symposium for UNC AIMS that will take place in 2020. She’s also a finalist for the Three Minute Thesis competition hosted by The Graduate School Oct. 29.

While she said she felt lucky to have people who told her she was capable of pursuing an M.D./Ph.D., she mentioned women and other underrepresented populations often face barriers when applying and are less likely to apply to a program if they think they do not meet every requirement.

After she’s graduated from UNC, Mercer-Smith plans to work on research with a clinical application. She values both her clinical and research exposure, since they both build off one another.

“You don’t have to choose between research and clinical practice,” she said.


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