[Lede photo: Seu, climbing Mireuksan, a mountain in Jeollabuk-do in South Korea, during a family trip.]
Lillian Seu ’05 was a young child in the 1980s when HIV/AIDS was ravaging communities. Two decades later, in 2011, she was fine-tuning lab diagnostics for HIV with the Centre for Infectious Disease Control in Zambia as part of a two-year NIH Fogarty Clinical Research Fellowship. Beginning in 2016, she spent three years conducting cancer research and developing immuno-oncology therapies for first-in-human clinical trials at Bristol-Myers Squibb.
Yet science wasn’t her first love. As a student at Stuyvesant High School in New York City, Seu was a poet and creative writer. One of her poems won a contest that gave her the opportunity to recite her stanzas on Carnegie Hall’s stage and publish them in a chapbook. So when Seu arrived on Barnard’s campus, she was focused on polishing her prose.
“I was drawn to Barnard’s writing program and received a copy of Edwidge Danticat’s Krik? Krak! as part of the incoming Class of 2005, which introduced me to the format of capturing diaspora in beautiful and poignant ways,” said Seu. As far as she was concerned, science wasn’t in her future. And then she met the late professor of chemistry Sally Chapman.
“At Barnard, I took general chemistry and still remember Professor Chapman’s commanding strut into the lecture hall, arms full of glassware and notes,” Seu recalled. “I will never forget how relentlessly she pursued truth in the interpretation of scientific data and how uncompromising she was in ‘no shortcuts’ and ‘no apologies’ for achieving excellence and rigor.”
“Even though [Chapman’s] class was tough, I equate it to having a language tutor who trains you so thoroughly that you’ve learned not only how to pronounce words and string together sentences but also how to hold meaningful conversations, make jokes, and build relationships through that language,” Seu reflected. Before Seu knew it, she had stopped thinking of herself as a student who struggled with science and was striving to become fluent.
Soon, connecting science to language became natural for Seu, who earned her Ph.D. in 2011 from the University of California, San Francisco, while training under Mike McCune, one of the world’s foremost experts in HIV immunology. As Seu learned about the toll the disease takes on the human immune system and as she gained proficiency in human immunology laboratory techniques, she turned her attention to Lusaka, the capital of Zambia, to conduct her postdoctoral training, where the HIV prevalence was 13% at the time.
“I had been very interested in establishing a greater connection between benchside research and the global health care community,” Seu said. “It strengthened my belief that science research, coupled to an intimate relationship with the greater community, can yield powerful solutions to some of the world’s biggest public health challenges, critical now more than ever in the era of COVID-19.”
While using Sanger sequencing, which allows researchers to read HIV genetic material like beads on a string, Seu also created antiretroviral resistance testing for patients at the Zambian Ministry of Health HIV clinic. Armed with the knowledge gained in Lusaka, Seu went on to collaborate with a team of translational scientists and clinicians for the Positive Health Program, which has contributed to much of what scientists now know about T cell dysfunction in HIV. Last year, she became a principal scientist at Allogene Therapeutics in South San Francisco, where she is working with a team to genetically engineer T cells to treat cancers.
“It's not lost on me that one of the programs I am working on, renal cell carcinoma, is the cancer type that Professor Chapman eventually succumbed to,” said Seu. “It is incredibly bittersweet, but it also gives me a great sense of purpose to keep Professor Chapman’s ethos of discipline, perseverance, and peer-mentor support alive in the search for a cure.”
And it’s not just Chapman whom Seu praised, but Barnard’s entire chemistry and biochemistry departments, including the students: “When we performed well, we celebrated with each other. When exams were tough, we commiserated with each other. Then we all went out and bonded over drinks and food!”
The passion for STEM and community that Seu embraced at the College remains strong. When she’s not researching immuno-oncology therapies for some of the world’s deadliest diseases, she’s mentoring students and serving on the editorial board of the Journal for ImmunoTherapy of Cancer. In these roles, she strives to cultivate in mentees the same drive she developed as a student at Barnard.
Said Seu, “At Barnard, there was nothing more motivating than seeing others working hard and not apologizing for it or pretending that it wasn’t.” Indeed, refining HIV testing and searching for cancer cures isn’t easy. “It’s a calling!” Seu said.