Newswise — LOS ANGELES (Dec. 14, 2017) ─ Shannon Sullivan, 26, a student at Howard University College of Medicine in Washington D.C., has already co-authored a major study in a prominent neuroscience journal and earned a coveted fellowship. She traces her career ambitions to age 12, when she learned she had spent her first months of life in the Cedars-Sinai Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). 

"I want to save babies the way the doctors at Cedars-Sinai saved me," Sullivan remembers telling her parents. 

Over the years, in her search for medical knowledge, the native of the Ladera Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles has continued her relationship with Cedars-Sinai. She was a teen volunteer in the NICU administrative office and has completed three stints as a research intern. 

"My internships at Cedars-Sinai have been beneficial from so many perspectives. They ingrained a strong work ethic because that's what I observed in the people around me," Sullivan said. "My skill set expanded, including learning how to work with a team, manage multiple projects and collaborate between departments and across disciplines. I also walked away with better communications skills, which I'm starting to use with patients." 

Sullivan's connection with Cedars-Sinai began on Sept. 13, 1991, when she was born 13 weeks ahead of schedule. Weighing a fragile 1 pound, 13 ounces, she spent the next three months of her life in the NICU at Cedars-Sinai, under the vigilant care of doctors, nurses and other medical staff. 

Twelve years later, after her parents told her the details of her preterm birth and Sullivan announced her career ambition, her mother and father encouraged her to learn about neonatology — the field of medicine concerned with the care, development and diseases of newborn infants. 

"The more I learned, the more I wanted to spend time in the NICU," Sullivan said. When she was 15, she decided to email Charles Simmons, MD, professor and chair of the Department of Pediatrics and director of Neonatology.

Although more than a decade has since passed, Simmons readily recalled Sullivan's cyber correspondence. "Shannon said she was starting 10th grade. She also wrote about a special connection she had with Cedars-Sinai that fueled her interest in neonatology," said Simmons, the Ruth and Harry Roman Chair in Neonatology. 

At Simmons' suggestion, Sullivan applied to the Cedars-Sinai Teen Volunteer Program, which places teens in clerical and clinical areas of the hospital to interact with patients, answer phones and perform other helpful services. Sullivan spent that summer, and the next two, as a teen volunteer in nursing units and the NICU's administrative office. 

Simmons' and Sullivan's paths crossed frequently, and the pair developed a mentor-mentee relationship. Sullivan said she was especially intrigued to discover that when Simmons wasn't caring for the tiniest of patients, he and his team were conducting research to benefit preterm babies. Her interest didn't go unnoticed. 

"I could see Shannon was driven, patient and resilient. She also was curious and creative," Simmons said. He told Sullivan these are good traits for doing hands-on science and suggested she keep biomedical research in mind as a possible profession. 

Recognizing that many teens are interested in biomedical science, Academic Human Resources at Cedars-Sinai — with the support of Leon Fine, MD, then vice dean of Research and Graduate Research Education — has since established an educational outreach to that age group. Now in its second year, the Cedars-Sinai Minors in Research initiative is for students ages 16 to 18. This seven-week summer program pairs teens with faculty mentors who introduce them to laboratory techniques and research concepts. 

After high school, Sullivan attended Columbia University in New York, earning a Bachelor of Science degree in biomedical engineering. Upon graduating in 2014, she again reached out to Simmons. "Dr. Simmons has been such a supportive figure and a great educator and mentor. I told him how much I'd like to work with him," Sullivan said.

Simmons responded enthusiastically, suggesting she apply to the Cedars-Sinai Research Internship Program. Launched that year by Academic Human Resources, this program is aimed at aspiring biomedical scientists who are 18 or older and interested in hands-on research. Since 2014, the program has welcomed more than 600 interns, each paired with a faculty mentor. During Fiscal Year 2017, 170 participants interned with 56 faculty members across 12 departments. 

Sullivan entered the program in October 2014 and served as a pediatrics research intern through July 2015. 

"We feel very fortunate to have had Shannon," Simmons said. "The Research Internship Program offers Cedars-Sinai faculty the unique privilege of contributing to the education of future leaders. Seeing those 'eureka' insights through someone else's eyes and realizing you've really benefited that individual — there's a lot of satisfaction in that."

Sullivan returned to Cedars-Sinai as a neurosurgery intern from August 2015 to June 2016, working in the laboratory of Ueli Rutishauser, PhD, associate professor of Neurosurgery and director of Human Neurophysiology Research at Cedars-Sinai. She was listed as second author of an impactful study on short-term memory published earlier this year in the journal Nature Neuroscience

"Shannon developed data analysis programs to process our data and also became an expert in anatomical work, including examining structural MRI images," Rutishauser said.

Sullivan's close association with Cedars-Sinai has continued. Now a second-year medical student at Howard University College of Medicine, Sullivan returned last summer to Rutishauser's lab as a research intern. This time, she was supported by a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Summer Medical Research Fellowship, a competitive award from the prestigious, nonprofit medical research organization based in Chevy Chase, Maryland.

In her most recent Cedars-Sinai internship, Sullivan spent nine weeks building on the Rutishauser lab's ongoing investigation of short-term memory.

"Interns change the dynamics of a lab. They bring new ideas, fresh eyes and a new point of view," Rutishauser said.

Sullivan hopes to be back. "Returning to Cedars-Sinai as a physician-scientist is my long-term goal," she said. "I also want, in some way, to serve the neonatal population. Neonatology saved my life, and I need to pay it forward." 

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Photo caption:
Interns Shannon Sullivan (l.) and Sivan Borenstein talk with Charles Simmons, MD, professor and chair of the Department of Pediatrics, at the 2015 Research Internship Program Poster Day at Cedars-Sinai.