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Q&A with MID PhD student Taylor Halsey

Q&A with MID PhD student Taylor Halsey

Taylor Halsey is a fifth-year PhD student in the Microbiology & Infectious Diseases program in the lab of Robert Jenq, MD. She is studying the gut microbiota and how it may directly impact side effects related to cancer therapy. Halsey’s interest in science began in her middle school science class, coupled with her participation in her high school robotics team. These exposures solidified her passion for STEM. 

 Halsey joined MD Anderson UTHealth Houston Graduate School in the fall of 2018 and during a speed networking event, she met Dr. Jenq. After a rotation in his lab, she knew she would get the exposure and support she needed in his lab, more so as his first student! While Taylor has worked on many personal goals throughout her years here, she is excited to continue in academia after a relaxing break. Taylor feels very fortunate for all her opportunities and is looking forward to training the next generation of students. “I am very grateful for the love and support I have received from so many people. I really hope that I can be a positive light to others and pay that good fortune forward.”

What ignited your passion for science?

I credit my love of science to my 7th grade science teacher, Mr. Anderson. He was always so enthusiastic and animated about the subject in a way that was so contagious! But I didn’t really understand all the different elements of science until high school. I was able to join a robotics team in 10th grade that was so much fun and exposed me to engineering for the first time; I think it was a combination of the general introduction to science in middle school followed by hands-on exposure in high school that solidified my passion for STEM.

Why did you choose the Graduate School for your research education? 

I thoroughly enjoyed my Graduate School interviews and every interaction with all the current students, faculty, and staff. I was very impressed by the magnitude of the TMC and was excited by all the research options to choose from. It was a great fit!

How did you choose a lab or advisor? 

Coming into graduate school, I knew I wanted to do “translational microbiology” with a focus on microbial influence on humans/patients. I met Dr. Jeng for the first time during a GSBS-sponsored faculty speed networking session and was really interested in the work his lab was doing. During my rotation, I was shown a lot of support and respect in a friendly lab environment. At the time, I was one of the first students to rotate in Jeng’s lab; that didn’t deter me at all because all the staff scientists, research technicians, and postdocs made me feel very welcome and I could tell I would learn a lot in this lab.

What is your current research about and how did you choose it? 

My research focuses on the gut microbiota and how it may directly impact side effects related to the cancer therapy, immune checkpoint inhibitors. Some immune cells have cytotoxic effects or can release factors that can be directed to kill cancer cells. This therapy works by blocking receptors on specific immune cells that, under normal conditions, work to maintain a balanced immune response in humans that now can be used to destroy cancer cells. Unfortunately, this can lead to toxic side effects as immune cells attack healthy cells/tissues, causing complications for cancer patients. The gut microbiota regulates the immune system by controlling immune stimulation and suppression; some of the findings from my work include select taxa in fecal microbiota transplantation may alleviate symptoms in ICI-induced colitis and gut dysbiosis at ICI-induced colitis diagnosis may be used as a prognostic factor for high infection rates and worse overall survival.

What do you want to do after you graduate?/What goals do you have for your career?

Short-term, I want to continue in academia and do a postdoctoral fellowship in microbiology to get more training in microbe-microbe and host-microbe interactions (after taking a small break to travel, see some cool sights, and hang with my friends and family). Long-term, I want to be a PI at an undergraduate serving institution where I can pursue both teaching and research while mentoring lots of trainees to continue to move the next STEM generation forward. It’s hard to say where I want my career to go but I am just happy I still get an opportunity to contribute to the field which I find to be an essential part of furthering our understanding of the world; I hope I get to do this for a very long time.

What has been your biggest success?

I take great pride in completing my PhD requirements and defending my dissertation. Of course, nothing can be perfect, and the day was not without its hiccups, but I was happy with my work and was genuinely happy to share that with so many supportive people.

What has been your biggest lesson and how did you overcome it?

Right after completing my undergraduate degree, I applied for a few PhD programs and did not get into any of them. At the time, I knew it was a bit of a longshot, based on my grades and research experience, but it hurt, nonetheless. I was able to reflect on what I wanted, apply to some master’s programs, and gain the experience required for me to be successful in this space. Ultimately, it was what I needed, and I was very successful the next time around!

What advice would you give to a first-year student?

Not to be too cliché, but this journey truly is a marathon, not a sprint. Take your time to get to know your project, your lab colleagues, and your advisor well so that you can build a support system that you can rely on when things get rough. And find something about your work that you love; it will keep you moving forward even if an experiment fails for the nth time.

What’s something you like to do when you are not working in the lab?

I love hanging out with my friends around Houston (mostly eating), reading nonfiction books, and I’m trying to get more into roller skating. Although I will admit I haven’t kept up with it.

Read about Hasley's Molly S. Bray, PhD, Scholarship here.

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