The months following college graduation can feel a bit daunting in the best of times; completing an undergraduate career during a pandemic takes that uncertainty to a whole new level. Fortunately for Sarah Lovelace ’20—and for the rest of us—her next steps are set: The newly minted Trinity University alumna just began a two-year fellowship with the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, working in a lab at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) that conducts research on vaccines for HIV, influenza, and—you guessed it—the novel coronavirus, among other contagions. “I didn’t realize when I picked this lab that it was going to be quite so relevant,” Lovelace says.
When Lovelace started her academic career at Trinity, the Houston native knew she wanted to study the biological sciences. “I decided to major in biology, to explore the field more broadly and figure out what I like before narrowing my focus,” she says. “I’m glad I did; otherwise, I might not have discovered my passion for studying infectious diseases.” She was assigned biology department chair James Shinkle, Ph.D., as her faculty adviser—following in the footsteps of her mother, a 1992 Trinity grad, who also studied under Shinkle. “I feel incredibly lucky to have had him as a mentor during my time here.” She also credits Jonathan Dougherty, Ph.D., a visiting assistant professor in the biology department, with sparking her specific interest in the subject. Lovelace even received a full-tuition Tower Scholarship, part of which was made possible by a gift from the Clifton C. & Henryetta C. Doak Scholarship Fund, reserved for outstanding biology majors.
Lovelace applied to the NIH Postbaccalaureate Intramural Research Training Award Program with several concrete goals: to study infectious diseases, pursue a project with real-world applications, and work at the main NIH campus in Bethesda. “I think it's special, this opportunity to take what I've learned in school and contribute to something that's going to help people down the line,” she says, “to physically do things that will eventually result in some kind of medical technology that will help people.” Being based at NIH headquarters will allow her to make the most of her time: “There are so many researchers and opportunities at the NIH. I want to have access to all of those connections.”
In a world upended by COVID-19, Lovelace’s fellowship and area of study seem more urgent than ever. “It feels validating and exciting to know that I'm going to be contributing, in some small way, to a field that is so immediately relevant,” she says. And, given that her lab is part of the NIAID, her “big boss” is none other than the viral media sensation, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the Institute. “It’s interesting to see him on TV now and think, ‘Oh, he’s at the top of my work food chain!’”
Apart from her work in the lab, Lovelace hopes to discern the right next step for her own career: medical school or graduate school. “I've spent the last four years going back and forth between the two,” she says. “This is an opportunity to talk to people in these different fields and see things for myself.” A former member of the Trinity Symphony Orchestra, she also plans to continue playing oboe.
This NIH fellowship won’t be Lovelace’s first experience in a lab: as an undergraduate, she spent two summers as an intern at the U.S. Army Institute of Surgical Research, and another at UT Southwestern Medical Center. “I feel really fortunate to have started research so early in my college career,” she says, “Once you have that first experience, it helps you in your applications for the next and the next.”
Whether she decides to eventually pursue an M.D. or Ph.D., Lovelace’s time at Trinity laid the foundations for her future in infectious disease. “Anyone who wants to be involved in research should just reach out to the Trinity faculty,” she says. “Take advantage of those opportunities while you have them. They were amazing for me.”