Independent research looks for cancer cure, policy solutions
Whether investigating human diseases or running races, 2009 graduate Nicole Clarke pushed herself to the next level.
With a major in chemical engineering and a certificate in engineering biology, Clarke devoted much of her Princeton career to researching some of the biggest medical issues facing society, including malaria, cancer and genetic testing. Whenever she could, she took the research out of the lab and into the world.
Inspired by an advanced genetics taught by biologist Lee Silver, Clarke and fellow chemical engineering major Sharon Goswami applied for funding from the Eugene Wong ’55 Fund for Engineering and Policy to sequence their own DNA as well as the DNA of the four additional students enrolled in the class. Since genetic testing has significant ramifications for insurance companies, they identified particular traits among themselves and their classmates that might affect their eligibility for different types of insurance. The ultimate goal was to determine how particular policies might protect consumers and insurance companies alike from the adverse effects of genetic testing.
Despite the potential for upsetting implications, Clarke wasn’t worried about the results of her genetic analysis. Instead, she sees it as a blueprint for future research.
“Ultimately, we will get to a point when knowing your personal genome will help you determine what to do now so you don’t get disease X in 20 years, or how to treat it if you do,” she said. “It’s the most intimate way you can know yourself.”
Clarke also searched for new ways to treat cancer. Advised by James Link, an assistant professor of chemical engineering, Clarke worked to engineer proteins to be used as anti-cancer therapeutics.
“I’ve had the opportunity to see and touch cancer—real tumors from real patients who are undergoing treatment for a very real disease that is so much more than a vial of purified protein sitting on my lab bench,” she said. “That’s the kind of perspective I was looking for. It helps keep me focused and aware of the work that still needs to be done in the cancer research field.” Clarke now plans to pursue a doctorate at Stanford University, where she has been accepted into the Cancer Biology Program.
Her focus and drive pervades all aspects of her life. Born in Trinidad, Clarke was raised in the United States and attended high school in Baltimore, Md., where she was a member of the track team. After taking time off from running when she first arrived at Princeton, Clarke found she missed it and designed a rigorous training program, which included a summer spent in Boulder, Colo., to train at high altitude. Her hard work paid off when she completed the Philadelphia marathon last year in 4:33:15.
“I run because it clears my head,” she said. “It also just makes me happy. Even with a long, hard run, I feel so much better afterward, ready to tackle homework, research, life in general … anything.”