Mathew Sebastian is a physician scientist in the Department of Medicine within the UNC School of Medicine. He studies the immune system’s reaction to cancer and how to bolster its defenses against the disease to create vaccines.
Q: How did you discover your specific field of study?
A: After college, I entered the post-baccalaureate program at the National Institutes of Health and became involved in immunology basic science research. While there, I learned about cancer immunotherapy research, where investigators were activating patient’s own immune systems against their cancers. I became fascinated with various immunotherapy research and how we could utilize our own host defenses to overcome cancer progression.
Q: Academics are problem-solvers. Describe a research challenge you’ve faced and how you overcame it.
A: In the MD-PhD program at the University of Florida, we had the opportunity to participate in the clinical practicum to obtain funding to design and implement a human clinical trial. This program allowed us to go through the motions of clinical research: asking a clinical question, writing a protocol for human subject research, submitting the protocol to the Institutional Review Board (IRB) and other regulatory agencies, recruiting research participants, analyzing data, and writing up the work.
None of my cohort members nor I had ever done anything like this before — and it was in addition to the expected workload of all medical students. We ran into issues. Most disheartening was when our project was initially tabled at the first IRB meeting. But this ended up furthering our resolve, led to IRB approval the second time around, and eventually, publication of the work. Experiencing not only the hurdles but the joy of completing and publishing a human trial was incredible.
Q: Describe your research in five words.
A: Cancer vaccines for all.
Q: Who or what inspires you? Why?
A: Working on our cancer services here at UNC and meeting patients and their families on this difficult journey. Despite meeting them at one of the most stressful times of their lives, seeing a patient’s resolve and their family’s support encourages me to push the needle forward on cancer therapies and treatment options.
Q: If you could pursue any other career, what would it be and why?
A: A chef. Growing up, I spent a lot of time in my childhood kitchen helping my mom get the individual components of our family’s masala recipe — a mixture of cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, and more — and cutting up a seemingly endless supply of onions, garlic, and meats. Hearing the sizzle and smelling the fragrances of sautéed onions and garlic with our masala has always been comforting. Since college, I have enjoyed preparing and sharing south Indian food for others.