Student Stories

Alum builds on UChicago research roots through the NIH Oxford-Cambridge Scholarship

Emily Beltran, AB’17, will pursue medicine and immunology research in this joint-degree program

Emily Beltran’s interest in biology began in high school and has since led her to labs all around the world, from Rehovot, Israel and Paris, France to New York City and Chicago. After earning a B.S. in Biological Sciences from the University of Chicago in 2017, she returned to the city this year as a medical student at Rush Medical College. Next, Beltran—recently named an NIH Oxford-Cambridge Scholar—will head to the UK to begin a PhD in biomedical research at the University of Oxford. There, she will study the intersections of science and medicine on a global level, building on the passion for research she developed while a student in the College.

Professional headshot of Emily Beltran.
Emily Beltran, AB'17

The NIH Oxford-Cambridge Scholars Program offers exceptional science students the opportunity to undertake accelerated, individualized doctoral training in the UK. The 10-15 students selected from across the US each year receive full funding for their MD, PhD and NIH appointment, and have access to resources from all three participating institutions.

“At such an early stage in your career to be able to forge these international collaborations is a really unique aspect to this program,” Beltran said. “Through that process you develop different kinds of leadership and management skills that you wouldn’t necessarily in a traditional PhD program.”

“Emily represents the best of UChicago; she was a focused and determined student, but also courageous in forging her own path,” said Nichole Fazio, director of the College Center for Research and Fellowships, who supported Beltran in the application process. “In addition to her remarkable research and academic record, I expect it was this courage that stood out to NIH Oxford-Cambridge selection committee and we are very proud of her efforts.”

Beltran’s path to this program was a unique one. While an undergraduate at UChicago, she completed the immunology specialized course sequence and became fascinated by the “profound role” of the immune system in our bodies and lives. Reflecting on her coursework, she noted that she would not have gotten this experience elsewhere: “You're not just memorizing molecules and pathways, you’re reading primary literature and learning how to think scientifically. That was a defining part of the sequence for me.”

As a second-year, Beltran joined the Cathryn Nagler Lab, where she studied in-depth the immunology of food allergies and went on to complete an honors research thesis. She attributes her decision to apply to the NIH-OxCam program in part to the independence she was granted while doing research at UChicago.  “I wasn’t just working in the lab doing assays. I was actually at a very early stage, as an undergrad, really driving my own experiments,” Beltran recalls.

After graduating, Beltran received a two-year professional research appointment at The Rockefeller University in NYC. There, she was able to both perform research and work directly with recruited patients.

“There’s a really powerful part to being able to see patients and work with them and actually have a direct impact in their life,” she said. With this in mind, she decided to apply to medical school, and has just finished her first year at Rush Medical College.

Beltran was drawn to the creative freedom and independence the NIH-OxCam fellowship offers, and for which her past research experiences have prepared her well.

“I think the unique part of it is that you get to, as a graduate student, choose both your own mentor at the NIH and at Oxford or Cambridge, and forge your own project,” Beltran said.  “You can ask really unique scientific questions that way which I think is something you wouldn’t get in pretty much any other graduate program.”

She hopes to continue her studies of the immune system and the fine line between its protective and self-destructive responses, with a view towards one day having both a lab and clinical practice of her own.

Beltran also noted the critical need for international collaboration between scientists and medical professionals, now more than ever. She hopes that the NIH-OxCam fellowship will allow her to forge such global collaborations and prepare her to work at the intersection of science and medicine. In light of the coronavirus pandemic, Beltran said, “I feel even more motivated to go down this path of doing the science and the medicine parts together because this type of global disaster related to disease I think is going to continue to happen, and I think having both sets of training in this program will prepare me to potentially be in a position to contribute in the future.”

Beltran will begin her fellowship in 2021, after finishing her second year at Rush. Following her MD, she will undertake a research fellowship with the National Institutes of Health. On her path to these opportunities, Beltran benefited from application support through the College Center for Research and Fellowships, which guides candidates through rigorous processes for nationally competitive fellowships.