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20-year-old Towson grad looks to further cancer research

Posted at 5:54 PM, May 22, 2024

TOWSON, Md. — Phoebe Calkins is on the fast track to finding new immunotherapies for cancer.

The honors scholar and cancer researcher walked across the stage at Towson University’s commencement Wednesday. She’s receiving a bachelor’s degree in cell and molecular biology. It’s the second stop in the 20-year-old’s collegiate career.

Calkins began college at 13. She was dual enrolled in Cecil Community College’s Early College Academy for homeschoolers. It was there that she took her first formal science class four years ago. And she was hooked.

“I really fell in love with that class,” she says. “I loved how everything fit together. And it’s like a mystery. Every time there’s something new, it adds a piece to that puzzle. It can really create and explore so many different things. And it’s like an entire universe that’s just within our bodies.”

Calkins finished high school at age 17 with an associate’s degree. She chose Towson University because of its undergraduate research program. TU gives Calkins and other students an opportunity to do research from the start.

The university’s new science complex with expanded programs was also an attraction, she says. It’s where Calkins has spent most of her time on campus the last three years. And where, she says, she became passionate about cancer research.

“I want to study cancer immunology and work on looking at the relationship between our immune system and cancer,” she says. “And help develop new cancer immunotherapeutics that use our own immune systems to help fight those cancer cells and develop treatments for those patients.”

Translation: She’s studying ways to train our bodies’ immune cells to recognize and kill just the cancer cells and not the good cells around them.

Calkins sought out a mentor, Dr. Erin Harberts, assistant professor of biology, when she arrived on campus. She works in Harberts’ immunology lab. She studies what leads to septic shock and alternative ways to regulate sepsis in patients with a compromised immune system.

“I think she finds it to be her happy place,” Harberts says. “That type of energy is infectious for other students who are searching for their happy place.”

Off campus, Calkins worked on different therapeutics to treat a bacterial gut infection called clostridium difficile. It’s a highly contagious and possibly life-threatening infection that often occurs after using antibiotics. That was in the Nathan Schnaper Intern Program in Translational Cancer at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

Last summer at the MD Anderson Cancer Center, the top cancer research institution in the country, she worked on a treatment for acute lymphoblastic leukemia.

She’s presented at a dozen national and regional conferences, including the National Association for Immunology’s annual conference.

“Phoebe has been a tremendous asset to the lab,” Harberts says. “Ever since the first day that she came to my office to ask if she could be a part of our research team, she has shown up. She’s enthusiastic. She’s a positive voice for other students in the lab.”

Calkins has been a leader in the lab and on campus. She mentors lab students and shows them how to conduct research. As president of TU’s Women in Science Club and VP of the Undergraduate Research Club, she helps students find research projects and funding for their own research.

Most importantly, Calkins helps STEM students create their own sense of community on campus and find the support they need.

“I really help those students that might not have that sort of sense of direction and help inspire them and push everyone forward because really it takes a team to do everything,” she says.

Calkins’ work is just beginning. She has a couple more classes to wrap up on campus.

Then she’s moving on to the University of Pennsylvania’s cancer biology Ph.D. program. Only 25 students are accepted into that program annually.