Berger ’19 receives Fulbright for cancer research

David Berger ’19 is not only getting ready to graduate, but he’s getting ready to move to Austria after getting the news that’s he has received a Fulbright grant to research cancer treatments.

David Berger
David Berger ’19

“It was about a year ago that I started this application process, so this really is a long-standing dream for me,” Berger said.

This Fulbright Research Grant will allow Berger to move closer to his home in Bavaria, Germany. Berger will start working at a laboratory at the Medical University Innsbruck in September, which is about three hours from his family.

“David’s specific Fulbright grant, the Austrian-Marshall Plan Foundation Awards for Graduate Studies and Ph.D. Research in Science and Technology, is actually intended for Ph.D. students, though the commission also considers applications from highly-qualified graduate and undergraduate students,” said Writing Studio Director and Director of Fellowships and Scholarships Laura Farmer, who worked with Berger to apply for this grant. “The fact that David secured this grant is a testament to his intellect, his research experience, and his incredible tenacity.”   

Berger will research a cancer treatment known as immunotherapy while simultaneously taking graduate classes. The biochemistry and molecular biology major says immunotherapy works by finding ways to harness the body’s natural ability to act against malignancies.

“This lab uses a modified virus, which is no longer harmful to the body, to stimulate the immune system’s ability to recognize and act against cancer cells,” Berger said. “This approach has shown immense promise when used in mice, which has led to the onset of a first clinical trial. While this clinical trial is going on, the goal of further animal research is to find ways to make this particular virus treatment even more efficient and to better understand how the virus leads to tumor remission.”

The Cornell soccer player has taken every opportunity to get involved in research since he transferred to the Hilltop three years ago. He is grateful to his mentor Professor of Psychology Steven Neese for introducing him to the world of neuroscience, which he says shaped his research interests as an undergraduate. In fact, Berger took on his first neuroscience research project in just his second semester at Cornell. He followed that with two summer research internships at Rutgers University and the University of Iowa.

While he mostly focused his research on neuroscience and neurobiology, an immunology course with Professor of Biology Barbara Christie-Pope sparked an interest in a new area of research.

“I came into the class with zero knowledge of immunology and finished the block learning more than I thought was possible in 18 days,” Berger said. “It was the most challenging, interesting, and best class I have taken at Cornell. Cancer was something we talked about quite a bit in that class, and the more I learned about how the immune system relates to cancer, the more I realized how much we don’t know yet. I became really excited about dipping my toes into this field, and I am excited to learn as much as possible through my time in the lab, taking graduate level classes, and interacting with cancer patients in Austria.”

Following his nine-month Fulbright research opportunity in Austria, Berger plans to pursue a combined M.D./Ph.D. program to enter medical school and graduate studies.

Looking back on the whole experience, he hopes other students learn from his experiences, especially that failure is part of the process when you are working toward your goals.

“It is very easy to forget how many times I was rejected from summer internships and other scholarships over the last four years,” Berger said. “If you accept that things don’t always work out the way you had initially planned, don’t take failures so personally, and let other people help you, you will see the many opportunities that are just waiting for you.”

Berger says he received a helping hand from a lot of people during his time at Cornell, including his advisor Professor of Biology Craig Tepper who supported him during this Fulbright application process, Assistant Professor of German Studies and History Tyler Carrington who he has worked with as a teaching assistant throughout his years at Cornell, and Head Soccer Coach Nate Grosse who taught him important values such as dedication, teamwork, appreciation of diversity, and leadership.

With Berger’s award, a total of 18 Fulbrights have been awarded to Cornell graduates in the past 14 years, seven of which were research-focused awards. In addition, two Cornell faculty received Fulbright Awards in 2016.