Student Stories: Immunology major devoted to infectious disease study

Sometimes a life-changing experience opens a student's eyes to what type of career she wants to pursue. For sophomore Erica Mellinger, that experience was the season of her father's sickness -- a time when he had to be treated in a hospital by research scientists.

This crucial episode led her to study Immunology and Infectious Disease at Penn State.

"When my dad got sick, he was given really amazing care at the National Institutes of Health," said the Palmyra, Pennsylvania, native. "It was incredible to see the dynamics between the research scientists, so their care for my dad became my driving force."

Conflicted by her competing desires to pursue a medical degree and to do research, Mellinger assumed she would have to choose. Little did she know that she could do both through the Penn State College of Medicine medical doctor/doctoral program.

To Mellinger, this discovery was "revolutionary."

As a freshman, she applied for the Hershey Summer Internship Program for 2013. Once accepted, she was placed in the lab of a graduate professor of microbiology and immunology to work on herpes virus research.

"My project was really cool because in March they made a discovery that affected my work," she explained. "They had never seen it before, so I had the opportunity to study something that was a new idea."

The Hershey Summer Internship Program requires second-round students to reapply, so Mellinger is working through that process now. Once she is finished with her second round of research next summer, she will apply during her junior year for the program.

Although Mellinger plans to pursue her passion for immunology and infectious disease studies, she also hopes to tie bioethics into her future career.

"Science can be so cold," she said. "You can just look at the patient as a test. The second we put up posters of our family on my dad's hospital walls, it changed the doctors' personalities and reactions toward him completely.

"It made him a father. It made him a husband. That's the kind of thing I want to accomplish with my research."

Learn about the Immunology and Infectious Disease major.

Last Updated August 06, 2014