Graduate Student Finds a Fit in Cancer Therapy Research

The only thing that graduate student Millie Shah (Ph.D. ’19) didn’t like about her internship at Merrimack Pharmaceuticals was the Boston winter. Otherwise it was a perfect fit. “My experience at Merrimack was both eye-opening and gratifying,” she says. “I loved being there.”

It is thanks to Biotechnology Training Program (BTP), one of UVA’s twelve NIH-sponsored training grants, that Shah had the opportunity to spend three months at Merrimack, a company using systems-based approaches to find new cancer therapies. In addition to the internship and two years of support, BTP students tour pharmaceutical companies, attend special seminars, and present their research to an audience of industry leaders at a biannual symposium.

The BTP is just one professional development option for BME graduate students. Recently, the department introduced GoingPro, a program that includes an industry internship and a set of professional development activities tailored to BME students. In addition to an excellent systems biology program, the availability of these programs was a critical factor in Shah’s decision to study at UVA. “I was interested in exploring a career in industry,” Shah says. “The chance to apply for a BTP grant was really attractive to me.”


Shah came away from Merrimack energized and enthusiastic. The project she took on, reconciling molecular and cellular models of a DNA damage repair pathway in hopes of developing a target to augment the action of established chemotherapies, built on skills she learned for her dissertation work in Associate Professor Kevin Janes’ Lab. Shah is investigating how the coxsackievirus perturbs signaling pathways in heart tissue. Viral infections are the major cause of noncongenital heart failure.

Shah also appreciated Merrimack’s approach to discovery. “They really emphasized learning,” she says. “They bring in a series of outside experts to give presentations in addition to holding in-house seminars and regular lab meetings.” Shah also found it fascinating to see the changes occurring at the company after it filed its first new drug application with the Food and Drug Administration. “I got to see firsthand how a company that has previously focused only on research adds a marketing department,” she says.

Although Shah has not made a definitive decision, she is leaning towards a career in industry, thanks to her BTP experiment. “My main goal is to have a clinical impact,” she says. “A company like Merrimack would meet my needs.”