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Alexandria Cogdill made the card herself. She signed it—as did everyone in the lab—with a personal flourish: “We took good care of your cells, and they’re excited to kill some tumor!”

Eleanor,* the card’s recipient, loved the encouraging words. She had quite a bit in common with Alexandria (Alex), a recent college graduate on her treatment team and now a fourth-year PhD student at MD Anderson UTHealth Graduate School. The same age, they were both college athletes who majored in biology, with stories so parallel that, as Alex saw it, they basically had the same life.

Doctors infused Eleanor with souped-up immune cells from her own body meant to track down and destroy her tumor. Only these did not. Eleanor returned for a second round, and Alex insisted on helping develop the immune cells again; she had seen this kind of treatment dissolve softball-sized tumors in days. She made another card, but the treatment still didn’t work.

“When I heard that Eleanor passed, I lost it,” Alex says. “I felt like I had failed her. I didn’t want to do it anymore; I was tired of losing people.”

Alex has known cancer since childhood; her father, her first cousin, and all four of her grandparents fought the disease. She remembers her grandfather, a tall, athletic Coast Guard veteran, shriveling under the onslaught of metastatic lung cancer.

Passionate and competitive, with an insatiable drive to learn, Alex completed her undergraduate degree in biology in 2007 during the infancy of cancer immunotherapy. Scientists had recently sequenced the human genome, and researchers began to believe they could spur the body’s immune system to recognize and attack cancer.

Alex soon began a two-year fellowship at the National Institutes of Health with Steven Rosenberg, MD, PhD, a pioneer in immunotherapy. He invented a treatment by which doctors harvest immune cells that have naturally recognized and attacked a tumor—albeit too few to make a difference on their own—multiply them in a laboratory, and infuse them back into the patient.

“I just thought that was nuts at first, but it worked really well,” she says. “The possibilities of this kind of treatment captivated me.”

Along with Rosenberg, mentors like leading physician-scientist Jennifer A. Wargo, MD, and 2018 Nobel Laureate immunotherapy researcher Jim Allison, PhD—both faculty members at MD Anderson UTHealth Graduate School—guided Alex along her journey as a budding oncologist. They encouraged her to continue reaching higher as she worked on research at Harvard Medical School and earned a master’s degree focused on bioengineering from the University of Pennsylvania.

“I think there are people in your life who sometimes make you think differently about what you’re capable of, and those people have done it for me,” Alex says.

As a first-generation student in a field with very few women, Alex has developed a passion for helping women pursue STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics)-related careers. She works with GenHERation, an empowerment network for young women, fulfilling what she views as her responsibility to show the way forward for others.

“Sometimes as a woman, it’s hard to imagine yourself being somewhere if you can’t see someone who looks like you in that position,” she says.

Alex has already come further than she ever imagined. Studying at a laboratory in France as a prestigious Fulbright Scholar, she researches how the gut microbiome affects a patient’s response to immune therapy, which could lead to more effective, personalized treatments.

As the future beckons, she keeps reminders of the past close at hand: pictures of those she has lost to cancer. They remind her why she set out on this journey, and that to truly care—as she did for Eleanor—means a willingness to feel the pain of loss.

“That kind of grief sticks with you,” she says. “But it can be a powerful motivator to do something good.”

*named changed to protect patient privacy

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Alexandria Cogdill, MEng