Graduate school honors woman who grew up with healthy curiosity

Eileen Foy's mother nurtured curiosity in her daughter from an early age, pointing to objects and asking her child, "What's that?" Then one day, the young girl turned the tables on her mother and began asking the questions herself.

Today, that sense of curiosity and the drive to ask and answer questions about the world around her has earned Ms. Foy the 2005 Nominata Award, the graduate school's top honor.                       

Eileen Foy, winner of the 2005 Nominata Award.

Ms. Foy, a student in the Medical Scientist Training Program studying molecular microbiology, is pursuing research aimed at developing a better understanding of the hepatitis C virus. UT Southwestern Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences officials presented her with the Nominata's $2,000 cash prize and invited her to deliver this year's Nominata Lecture on her scientific work.

Ms. Foy has learned a great deal during a lifetime of asking "what's that?" She has published numerous papers in prestigious scientific journals, traveled throughout the world to present talks on her research, and is preparing, with her UT Southwestern colleagues, a textbook chapter explaining how the hepatitis C virus evades its host's natural immune responses.

"I loved my first science classes in junior high," Ms. Foy recalled. "I loved how science offered explanations for biological and physical processes. It was fascinating to learn how things worked and why."

After finishing high school in Arizona, she and her family relocated to California. Ms. Foy enrolled in a junior college "and took every science class they had," she said.

She took classes in physics, chemistry and biology, but it was the microbiology course that sealed her choice of major as she prepared to enroll at the University of California, Los Angeles. She would go on to graduate summa cum laude from UCLA in 1998 with a degree in microbiology and molecular genetics.

In her last year of undergraduate school, Ms. Foy decided to apply to a joint M.D./Ph.D. program. She compared schools across the country that excelled in both science and medicine, and, after interviewing with several UT Southwestern researchers, made her final choice.

"I was very impressed with the people here, and the microbiology department definitely had many talented faculty that I would be interested in working with," she said.

Her interest in infectious diseases brought her together with Dr. Michael Gale, associate professor of microbiology and an internationally known expert on the hepatitis C virus (HCV). An estimated 200 million people worldwide are infected with the blood-borne pathogen. The virus is particularly insidious, living in a host for more than 30 years, slowly but inexorably destroying the liver.

"Our group is interested in understanding how HCV is so successful at being persistent," Ms. Foy said.

What Ms. Foy and her colleagues have found is that HCV disables the natural defense mechanisms used by the host's liver cells to ward off infection. With the cells' defenses down, HCV can remain in the liver and replicate unchecked, leading to a scarring of the liver that eventually shuts down the organ. She also identified a drug that could target and restore immune function in infected cells.

Her research has garnered great attention from scientists worldwide, said Dr. Gale, who also noted the young scientist's dedication and particularly her humility.

"Eileen's work has turned on a new area of study in infectious disease," he said. "Other researchers have since taken her ideas and applied them to other viruses, and have shown that almost every virus that infects humans operates by short-circuiting the cell's immune response. Her research has provided insights not only into the workings of the hepatitis C virus, but also has implications for viral infectious diseases in general."

While at UT Southwestern, Ms. Foy has participated in many volunteer activities, including teaching youngsters and adolescents the dangers of tobacco and sexually transmitted diseases; raising awareness of domestic violence issues; and mentoring and recruiting female medical students to UT Southwestern.

While an undergraduate in California, Ms. Foy volunteered at a pediatric AIDS clinic, helping children with homework or playing with them as they awaited appointments and tests.

"It was a chance to see how this disease affected their lives," she said.

In Dallas, she has been paired with an adult AIDS patient for the past five years. Assisting the single mother with life's basic necessities, such as grocery shopping, picking up medication and running errands, Ms. Foy not only gained a friend, but also furthered her appreciation for how disease, as well as treatment, can impact a patient's life.

"As a physician, you're used to seeing patients in your office, diagnosing them and providing treatment," Ms. Foy said. "But this woman has kidney failure and gets dialysis three times a week, which completely wipes her out. It's good to have that perspective on how what you do to try to help them as a physician actually affects their daily life."

Ms. Foy will continue her work in infectious diseases as she moves on to two more years of medical school at UT Southwestern. After medical school, she said, "I can't imagine myself not doing research on some aspect of infectious disease," but added that a good career fit for her would combine her interests in infectious disease and pediatrics.