How a study abroad experience in Ireland led to innovative cancer research

Author: Colleen Wilcox

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Jenna Koenig’s first love was solving mysteries. She felt compelled to piece together leads and unravel complex puzzles. There was excitement behind the chase, as it ultimately led to discovery. This fascination was followed by her love of science and biology. It was only natural that Koenig was drawn to medical research, as she was always relentless in her search for answers.

“It became very clear to me at a young age that I wanted to become some sort of physician,” reflects Koenig. “You figure out a diagnosis and find the treatment plan, but also work to figure out the mechanism behind someone’s disease or why treatment works or doesn’t work.”

The biology major from Rice Lake, Wisconsin didn’t waste any time pursuing her academic and career aspirations after enrolling at the University of Notre Dame in 2016. During her freshmen year, Koenig was exposed to biomedical research at Harper Cancer Research Institute, where investigators from both Notre Dame and Indiana University School of Medicine work together with the goal of helping cancer patients survive longer. This sparked her interest in cancer research in particular, and how cancer develops.

“Each cancer is such a complex disease and I find that fascinating,” says Koenig. “There are so many ways to attack it, but it’s never going to be a quick, one-way answer.”

A new track

The summer after her sophomore year, Koenig decided to take a break from lab work and explore the world outside of South Bend. She enrolled in the Ireland Inside Track Program, providing her an immersive experience and insight into Irish culture. Accessing the program allowed Koenig to have significant cultural experiences such as a historical walking tour of Dublin, a tour of the Aran Islands off the west coast, exploration of the rugged Connemara landscape, and participation in a panel discussion on Irish-American relations in Galway.

“It was a great introduction to Ireland,” says Koenig. “I found myself drawn to the west; the authenticity, the proud heritage, and the identity won me over.“

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At the end of the one-week program, Koenig arranged to find her way back to Ireland’s west coast. Her sense of discovery was only heightened when she learned about a new study abroad program in Galway City. She was intrigued to discover Notre Dame’s partner university, National University of Ireland Galway (NUIG), located in the spectacular City of Tribes (Galway) on the west Athlantic coast of Ireland. NUIG is renowned for its medical school and biomedical science programs and is ranked among the top 1% of universities worldwide. 

It wasn’t enough for this explorer to have a study abroad experience; she wanted to push herself further. Koenig contacted the executive director of the Kylemore Global Centre, Lisa Caulfield, to discuss possible research opportunities at NUIG.

“From day one, Koenig exhibited enthusiasm and interest in Ireland, identifying the west of Ireland as a motivator for her to return for the study abroad experience,” says Caulfield.

“Ultimately, The Inside Track did what it sets out to do - planting a seed within a student that hopefully grows into a life-long relationship with Ireland.”

Caulfield says Koenig was a charismatic young leader who was incredibly motivated. She was excited to help connect her to Irish researchers and get her back in the classroom in Ireland.

“For Jenna, coming out west was like coming home," says Caulfield.

Connection to Irish cancer research

As part of the first cohort of students to participate in the NUI Galway Study abroad program during the fall of 2018, Caulfield connected Koenig with leading Irish cancer researchers, leading to an internship in cancer research and her own independent project with breast cancer researcher Dr. Emer Bourke, with the Lambe Institute for Translational Research NUIG.

The focus of Dr. Bourke’s group is investigating the molecular and structural changes that underpin how breast cancer develops. Koenig’s project was a part of the collaboration between Dr. Bourke’s group and a group in Denmark, investigating the interaction between breast cancer and Malaria. Dr. Bourke’s group is looking for the first time at the effects of Malaria proteins on a very aggressive sub-type of breast cancer called triple negative, a research area related to Koenig’s freshman projects at Harper. Koenig’s project allowed her to work with researchers, testing if triple-negative breast cancer cell growth was affected by specific malaria proteins.

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“This was such a huge opportunity for me to work in an international lab, gaining valuable new laboratory experience and working with multi-disciplinary teams,” says Koenig. “I’ve learned new techniques and most importantly, I’m expanding my network with international researchers.”

Following successful completion of Koenig’s internship experience, Caulfield and Dr. Bourke are excited about the collaborative nature of this program and future opportunities for students. 

“This is truly a bright start to a new program, strengthening the academic and research links between Ireland and the United States," says Dr. Bourke.

New partnership, new opportunities

Once returning home to Notre Dame, Koenig hopes to share her scientific and cultural experience in Ireland with other students, highlighting how this program and experience has only enhanced her academic and professional opportunities. Koenig says some students fear that time abroad will put them behind academically, but wanted to emphasize that going abroad to NUIG is a huge asset, to both their personal and professional opportunities.

“There’s a big future for placements in Galway,” says Koenig.

“My hope is that other students don’t feel like they are sacrificing anything by going abroad because going abroad is never a sacrifice.”

Caulfield agrees that this is just the beginning of a program allowing students to seize new opportunities and experiences, through placement and collaborations with their partner NUIG.

“This is truly a unique opportunity for our pre-professional and/or pre-med students to study abroad and gain valuable international experience within a global context,” says Caulfield. “NUIG is situated within the med-tech hub of Europe, which gives our students an exceptional space for research and experience.”

Koenig is now back on campus and back at Harper. She’s already looking beyond her senior thesis towards a MD/PhD program, with the goal of becoming a physician scientist doing cancer research. While she’s now focused on her future research opportunities, Koenig says it’s important to never lose her sense of discovery, which ultimately led her west.

“I will always be thankful for my study abroad experience in Ireland,” reflects Koenig. “You always come back with so much more than you can even imagine.”