At one time, Rhea Sullivan’s goal in life was to be a professional soccer player.

But after getting involved in the Mini-THON fundraising organization at Hempfield High School, she was given a medical center tour that changed her life and gave it direction.

Sullivan, daughter of Steve and Nikki Sullivan, of Landisville, is now a first-year medical student in the MD/PhD program at Penn State College of Medicine in Hershey.

The spark of inspiration for her choice to study to become a physician-scientist — one who both sees patients and does research — happened when she saw the laboratory facilities at the Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, Sullivan says.

“I wanted to be a soccer player. That’s honestly what I wanted to do,” Sullivan recalls as she sits in a classroom at the medical school.

“I was actually training with the Olympic Development Program to play. … But I tore my ACL twice before my senior year of high school,” she adds.

“I was active in Mini-THON for about 2 1/2 years,” she says of the high school organization, which raises money for the Four Diamonds organization that helps families of children with cancer. “But it wasn’t until my senior year that I kind of took a leadership role” as one of the overall chairs of Hempfield’s Mini-THON.

We raised more than $124,000,” she says. “We were crying and rejoicing.”

Four Diamonds staff members had started giving students tours of the labs at the medical school, Sullivan says, to show them the positive impact the funds they raised had on the pediatric cancer patients and their families.

Four Diamonds is funded by both student-run high school Mini-THONS at more than 280 schools and by the millions of dollars raised by Penn State University’s annual THON dance marathon. It, in turn, funds research in addition to offering medical care and support to the pediatric cancer patients and their families.

Life-changing tour

During the Hershey tour, Hempfield Mini-THON volunteers met doctors, social workers, music therapists and other professionals who work with cancer patients, Sullivan says.

“But the thing that made the biggest impact on me, and really my whole career trajectory, was going through the labs that were Four Diamonds-funded,” Sullivan says. “These are scientific laboratories where they’re developing new therapies to target and treat pediatric cancer.

“It kind of gave me a new awareness I’d never had before that you could use this money to target the problem at the source,” she says.

“I knew at the time I liked science,” Sullivan recalls. But, until that tour, “I wasn’t ever exposed to the idea of working in a lab or targeting the problem at the root.”

Cathi Fuhrman, library department supervisor for Hempfield School District, says: “I remember Rhea very distinctly at the high school. She was always a wonderful student and was very involved in many, many things. She always had a strong commitment to Mini-THON and the Four Diamonds cause.”

Fuhrman is now one of the advisers for Hempfield’s Mini-Thon program, and has been on the kinds of tours at Hershey Medical Center that Sullivan took.

“The doctors and the psychologists come in and tell us where the money goes and why it’s so important,” Fuhrman says. “We can give the students all kinds of percentages and statistics, but to actually go to the hospital and hear the nurses and the therapists talk about what it means for these patients, to have the kind of care they can have because of Four Diamonds, it just makes it real for the students.”

Science major

After graduating from Hempfield in 2014, Sullivan went on to Penn State’s Schreyer Honors College, earning her undergraduate degree in biochemistry and molecular biology.

“I did my thesis in a pediatric neurodevelopmental lab,” Sullivan says. “It was studying autism. I was really passionate about doing research.”

During her undergraduate program, she traveled to rural Honduras and volunteered as a Spanish translator for triage nurses at a medical clinic.

She also learned about the eight-year MD/PhD program at the Hershey Medical Center.

“I knew you could become a doctor,” Sullivan says, “and I now knew that you could work in a lab. But what I didn’t know was that you could actually fuse both together.”

During her undergraduate program, she participated in an honors college summer program for students who “are passionate about research and medicine and are potentially thinking about an MD/PhD,” she says.

“They actually recruit students to come (to Hershey) in the summer after their freshman and sophomore years, to pair up with a scientist, to pair up with a physician ... and see what it’s like actually to do both,” she adds.

Robert Levenson, a professor and co-director of the Medical Scientist (MD/PhD) Training Program at the medical college, says, “They have the opportunity to do a research project and also to go to clinic, one day per week during the summer to get an idea of how a physician-scientists actually work (and) how they spend their time.

“We sponsor four students every summer,” Levenson adds. “If they enjoy the program and are interested in pursuing it, we invite them back for a second summer. And then, if they’re really excited, and we think they’re really great,” they can find out in their junior year whether they’ve been accepted to the med-school program.

“What impressed me about Rhea is that she actually jumped the gun and contacted me personally about spending the summer in Hershey, even before we were considering her for this summer internship program,” Levenson says. “I’m always impressed by students who are proactive about finding opportunities and other experiences that helped them decide what career path they want to follow.

“She also said something that was very unusual,” he says. “She had already been in a laboratory up at State College (Penn State’s main campus), so this was not going to be her first research experience. But she made it very clear that she really was looking for a lab that was going to allow her to carry out an independent project (where) she wasn’t just going to be a pair of hands for a graduate student for a post-doc.

“I’ve never heard that before from any undergraduate, especially someone who was a freshman,” Levenson says.

Sullivan’s study project took place in a lab that was studying the cellular processes behind potential opioid addiction risk and relapse, Levenson says.

“I think she’s passionate about research,” he says of Sullivan. “And I think she’s also passionate about clinical medicine. … I think she’s got the resilience and the makeup to be a successful physician-scientist.”

Personalized medicine

Sullivan is studying for both PhD and MD degrees in her program.

“In particular, I’m interested in personalized medicine,” she says. “That’s targeting your therapies directly to the patient and their genome,” and striving to eliminate the side effects that come from a “normal blanket, one-size-fits-all drug. ... We see so many children and adults alike that have awful side effects from drugs.

“I want to bridge personalized medicine and neuroscience,” she says. “And so, I want to take personalized medicine and bring it to pediatric patients that have neurodevelopmental issues, like autism, like schizophrenia, ADHD — or even neurodegenerative diseases, like Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s that affect older patients.

“I have never done cancer research. But it’s a possibility,” she says. “I’m only in my first year, and this program is eight years long.”

She explains the program entails “two years of medical school, studying in the library, books, lectures, then it’s four years in the lab, where we basically come up with a question that we’re really interested in, and we explore it and write a thesis about our scientific question.

“Then, after those four years, we go back to the clinic … for the third and fourth years of med school, getting ready for residency,” she says. “It’s going to be a long haul. I’m going to be 30 when I graduate. I’m only 22 right now.”

After that will come a residency of five or six years, and then, she says, her ideal job would have her “80 percent in the lab, and 20 percent of my time will be in the clinic, seeing patients.”

Levenson says, “It’s a very altruistic career path, also,” because physician-scientists generally don’t make as much over their lifetimes as doctors in private practice.

But they also don’t have student debt, he adds. The MD/PhD students’ programs are fully paid for over the eight years.

“I think that (Sullivan) is a unique person, in terms of balancing what her academic goals are with community service,” Levenson says. “And I know that she will be a real attribute for the program, and I think we we’re lucky to recruit her.”

Sullivan says, “I truly am a product of Penn State and Four Diamonds. Because if it wasn’t for my experience with Four Diamonds ... and my undergrad research, then I wouldn’t be here where I am today. And how perfect that it worked out that I got to come back to the place where it all started.”