Eily Cournoyer: Winning the cancer battle

Eily Cournoyer
Hometown: Portsmouth, R.I.
Age: 21
Major: Chemical Engineering

More children between the ages of 1 and 14 die from cancer than from any other disease. Every year, about 10,400 children are diagnosed with cancer and about 1,545 die. Eily Cournoyer wants those statistics at zero.

The University of Rhode Island chemical engineering and biology senior has spent most of her life preparing for a career in medicine. Since a childhood illness left her with a deep appreciation of medical professionals, she’s been fascinated by how engineering, biology, chemistry and math can treat diseases and save lives.

“I want to tackle the world’s problems and make a difference in people’s lives because that’s what it’s all about,” Cournoyer says.

The 21-year-old from Portsmouth, R.I., is well on her way. She spent the summer of 2012 interning at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, one of the world’s premier institutions for researching and treating pediatric cancer. There, she researched innovative methods to treat neuroblastoma, a cancerous tumor that develops from sympathetic nerve tissue in infants and young children. The disease is relatively rare, occurring in about 1 out of 100,000 children, and often deadly.

Eily Cournoyer
Eily Cournoyer with her fellow interns at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

Also rare are interns at St. Jude. The Memphis hospital received more than 700 applications for its Pediatric Oncology Education Program and accepted just 69. Cournoyer and another intern became the first St. Jude interns from the Ocean State. Administrators cautioned Cournoyer that she would build the reputation – good or bad – for the University of Rhode Island and even the state.

Fortunately, she shined. Dr. Kevin Freeman, her lab director and mentor, said he immediately saw a self-motivated intern capable of tackling projects independently and learning from her mistakes.

“Some people are very good at talking a good game but they’re not actually good at achieving. Eily is an achiever,” Freeman says. “She hit the ground running. I gave her challenges and she met them.”

In the lab, Cournoyer researched methods to block the flow of glutamine to cancer cells. Without the amino acid, cancer cells will starve and die.

In a hospital competition, her paper outlining her results tied for first place among papers written by the interns in her program. A poster based on the project garnered a first place award at the 2012 American Institute of Chemical Engineers annual conference. (Read related article.)

Although Cournoyer conducted her research in a lab, the patients were never far away. Every day her walk to the lab took her past a cafeteria full of children, most undergoing treatment for cancer or HIV. Many wore masks to keep germs from their immune systems weakened by chemotherapy while others dragged IVs behind them and many had long ago lost their hair. It could serve as a depressing sight, but Cournoyer said the children displayed remarkable resilience.

“Even if they’re wearing masks you can see in their eyes they are smiling,” she says.

Those smiles kept her going and affirmed her pursuit of pediatric medicine as a career. She says the prospect for patient interaction motivates her, as does the opportunity to apply years of learning and research to improving a human life.

It’s why she dove into engineering despite a childhood vow never to follow in her father’s footsteps as an engineer. But when her high school math teacher noted that a career in biomedical engineering could serve as a precursor to medical school, Cournoyer changed her tune. She arrived at the University as a biomedical student but found a passion in chemistry and switched to chemical engineering. She later added a major in biology to strengthen her inevitable application to medical school.

As she crisscrosses labs on campus, Cournoyer has found countless synergies between engineering and the life sciences. And she’s learned that engineering can provide a foundation to solve almost any challenge.

“The engineering curriculum here leads you to think in a unique way,” she says. “If I’m sitting here with a unique problem, even if I have 10 textbooks, there’s no answer in them. There’s no answer on Google. You have to come up with the solution yourself.”

So, is the solution to Cournoyer’s big challenge, improving children’s health, within reach?

“I have full confidence that whatever Eily decides to do she will do it very well,” Freeman says. “And she will be very successful.”