Ellison Institute Junior Fellow and USC Alumna Launches Promising Career in Oncology

When Sophie Mansfield (’18, MA ’19) was moved to the oncology team at Pfizer, she had the uncanny feeling that things had come full circle. Before attending USC and solidifying her interest in the economics and policy aspects of cancer research, Mansfield was a high school student taking part in the Junior Fellows program at the Lawrence J. Ellison Institute for Transformative Medicine of USC.

“It’s interesting when you’re that age and starting to figure out what you like,” remembers Mansfield. “It was great to be surrounded by other people my age…all coming to it for different reasons.”

Sophie Mansfield

The Junior Fellows program at the Ellison Institute, which celebrated its tenth anniversary in summer 2020, is a free high school fellowship program that fosters scientific education for rising high school seniors. The program caters to students with an interest in clinical or research oncology, and provides hands-on experimentation, mentorship and collaboration. The program grew out of the Ellison Institute’s commitment to education and the desire to provide a unique learning experience for students from the local community.

Mansfield discovered that she had an interest in oncology when she encountered the discipline in her high school Advanced Placement biology class. She was immediately fascinated by how cancer is simultaneously big and small: tiny multiplying cells go on to have a huge, and often devastating, impact on people’s lives. It’s scientific, but it’s also very personal, and Mansfield was drawn to the possibility of working in a field that would have an impact. Her teacher noticed Mansfield’s interest as well. Always a good student, she was getting even higher grades in this section of the class, and so the teacher pointed Mansfield towards the Ellison Institute Junior Fellows program.

While in the program, Mansfield was introduced to lab research and coached by mentors in the field, and perhaps most importantly, she was surrounded by other young people who were just as interested and intellectually curious as she was. The group learned a lot in a relatively short period of time – everything from the basics of lab equipment and safety to complex analytics and therapeutic decisions. They also had the opportunity to learn directly from Ellison Institute Founding Director & CEO David Agus, M.D. and Research Director Mitchell Gross, M.D., PhD, which was a unique opportunity for high school students to speak directly to such accomplished physician researchers.

Kian Kani, PhD, Education & Outreach Director at the Ellison Institute and Junior Fellows program head, became such a close mentor of Sophie’s that he wrote her USC recommendation letter – a testament to how beneficial the program was to her intellectual development. “Sophie was exceptional at teamwork because of her innate ability to elevate and focus group discussions,” said Kani. “She realized early on that a hands-on career in healthcare was not for her, and I am constantly reminded of our conversations about theory, crafting career options that were best suited for her. Sophie made me a better mentor and improved the Junior Fellows program for all future interns.”

Following the Junior Fellows program, Mansfield interned at a research lab at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. As she learned the importance of cancer research for such a vulnerable population, she was able to put to work the concrete skills she learned in the Junior Fellows program, including familiarity with scientific literature and the process of running different types of assays to determine treatment efficacy She also had her work published in a peer-reviewed journal while there. Perhaps most importantly, her time at Children’s Hospital solidified that research was not exactly what she wanted to be doing with her career.

Armed with that realization, Mansfield entered USC as a biochemistry major, before realizing her interest lay on the business side, and ultimately switched her major to Economics. She feels that her time in Junior Fellows and at Children’s Hospital were beneficial to her success in her introductory biology and chemistry classes. “Once I got to USC I had a leg up,” Mansfield says. “It was great to have a comfort level as a young woman in STEM, [as] those classes were super competitive.” She took that knowledge into her subsequent internship with the Schaeffer Center for Health Policy & Economics, which she was recommended for by another mentor from the Ellison Institute Junior Fellows program. Because of that strong recommendation, she was able to work directly with the head of the Schaeffer Center, Dr. Dana Goldman. Mansfield worked at the Schaeffer Center throughout her time at USC, studying the intersection of healthcare, science, economics and policy, and crystallizing her plans for the future.

Once she confirmed for herself that her interests lay on the business side of oncology, Mansfield was off and running, securing two more internships with healthcare consulting firms before entering the Healthcare Decision Analysis Master’s program at USC’s Pharmacy School.

Upon graduating, Mansfield went to work at Pfizer, where she had also interned while at USC. She’s now an Analyst in the Strategy and Consulting Group, where she consults across Pfizer’s business units on corporate and product strategy. She was recently moved over to the oncology unit, where she’s working on a project that involves bringing together different initiatives from all of Pfizer’s oncology franchises and ensuring that all of them build towards one common health equity framework to help patients in need.

With this new assignment on the oncology team, Mansfield’s journey has truly come full circle, and she credits the Junior Fellows program with pushing her to pursue a career in science. Particularly as a young woman in STEM, she felt challenged, supported, and empowered in the Junior Fellows program. Although she didn’t ultimately pursue a career in research, understanding the “bench” side of cancer gave her a foundation and a credibility within the oncology world that was invaluable. “Truly I owe everything to them,” she says.

The Ellison Institute is a multidisciplinary research facility and patient care center, which draws collaborators and thought leaders from across conventional health and wellness fields, as well as from a broad range of other disciplines such as physics, biology, math and engineering, to study and transform the understanding of cancer and accelerate research.