His background in sports – and the injuries that resulted from them – led Ian Cooley to his lifelong pursuit and, ultimately, becoming a student at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine.

Cooley grew up in Pennsylvania and attended college at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. He majored in economics, but he knew it wasn’t what he wanted to do with his life.

“I played sports – hockey was my main sport – and I had a bunch of injuries. Once I was in the rehab process a few times, I started reading about my own  exercise for rehab. I got progressively nerdier about it – started reading research articles about it and things like that,” Cooley said. “That was my initial entry into the world of biomedical sciences.”

After completing his undergraduate degree, Cooley moved to Charlotte, North Carolina, and took some biology and post-baccalaureate classes at UNC-Charlotte. A professor invited him to do some research in a lab which led him to pursue a master’s degree with significant research in immunology, including a first-author publication.

While he enjoyed research, it still wasn’t the perfect fit.

“When I was injured from sports, I did a lot of coaching. I also had a few jobs tutoring. I enjoyed that one-on-one, coach-to-athlete or teacher-to-student, relationship,” Cooley said. “I thought medicine would be a good mix of the two – having the hardcore science from research, but also the relationship component, teaching people about their bodies or health condition.”

When he began applying to medical school, he discovered the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine. The school’s focus on research – every student is required to complete a research project of publishable quality – and use of problem-based, small-group learning appealed to Cooley.

When it came time to pick a research project and mentor, Cooley knew he would like to continue in the immunology field broadly, building off the research he did in graduate school. He connected with Kenneth Oestreich as soon as he learned the immune system researcher had been recruited to the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute.

With Oestreich’s guidance, Cooley’s research project over the last four years has looked at a chemical messenger called interleukin-15.  Interleukin 15 regulates the activities of T-cells, which are blood cells that help control the immune system.

“The impetus for us studying that chemical messenger in particular is that they are using it as a cancer treatment. They know that interleukin 15 has certain effects on different immune cell types. We were interested in seeing for patients being given this drug – what is it doing to  T-cells that regulate  the activities of other immune cells?” Cooley said. “It will give us an idea of whether or not this type of cell is one that is going to be beneficial for how the body fights against cancer.”

The research has implications beyond cancer as well.

“Figuring this stuff out also helps to understand how to improve vaccine development because of the manner in which these types of T-cells  control all of the other players of the immune system. It also has some implications for the treatment of autoimmune disease,” Cooley added.

Cooley published a first-author paper on this research and was recognized with an abstract award by the American Society of Hematology, an honor rare for a medical student.

“From the outset, Ian has been a valuable contributor to our research team. He has a natural blend of intellectual curiosity, talent, and work ethic that has culminated in a very productive research experience in our laboratory,” said Oestreich. “Ian’s research has provided important insights into how T-cell immune responses are regulated and I am delighted to see the well-deserved recognition of his work.”

After graduation in May, Cooley will pursue a residency in internal medicine. He may decide later to specialize in hematology or oncology, but one thing he is sure he wants to do is continue research in some capacity.

“I’d like to branch out some and do more patient-oriented clinical research at least during residency and then reassess from there if I’d like to go back to some lab-based work or stick with clinical research,” Cooley said.

No matter what direction his research goes, Cooley appreciated that the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine put a focus on research for all of its students.

“Having research experience and publications sets us up to continue doing good research in residency and beyond. Even separate from research productivity in our careers, understanding the research process is really important to have some kind of perspective while reading scientific publications," he said.

Cooley is one of eight students in this year’s graduating class of 40 who has been selected to present his work during the VTCSOM Medical Student Research Symposium on Friday. The event is from noon to 5 p.m. in room 203 at the school. Admission is free, and the public is invited to attend.

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