discoveries magazine

Lifelong Connection

After learning she spent the first three months of her life in the Cedars-Sinai NICU, Shannon Sullivan decided to pursue a career helping infants. Photograph: Cameron Davidson

Shannon Sullivan has wanted to work in medicine since the age of 12, but the roots of that aspiration took hold at birth. Sullivan spent the first three months of her life in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) in the Maxine Dunitz Children’s Health Center at Cedars-Sinai. Born 13 weeks preterm, she weighed less than 2 pounds and required state-of-the-art, life-giving care.

“I want to save babies the way the doctors at Cedars-Sinai saved me,” she remembers telling her parents years later, after learning about the complexities of her birth and the challenging months that followed.

Now 26 and a student at Howard University College of Medicine in Washington, D.C., Sullivan is well on her way to achieving her dream. She already has co-authored a major study in a prominent neuroscience journal and earned a coveted fellowship. Still, she keeps returning to Cedars-Sinai to further hone her skills.

Ten years ago, she contacted Charles Simmons, MD, professor and chair of the Cedars-Sinai Department of Pediatrics, director of Neonatology, and the Ruth and Harry Roman Chair in Neonatology in honor of Larry Baum. At his suggestion, she joined the Cedars-Sinai Teen Volunteer Program. During her free time over the next three summers, she volunteered in nursing units and in the NICU’s administrative office. “The more I learned, the more I wanted to spend time in the NICU,” Sullivan says.

“I could see that Shannon was driven, patient, and resilient,” Simmons says. “She also was curious and creative.” Noting her interest in helping preemies and her aptitude for science, he suggested she consider biomedical research as a potential career path.

Heeding that advice, she earned a bachelor’s degree in biomedical engineering from Columbia University. After graduation, Sullivan again turned to Simmons. “I told him how much I’d like to work with him,” she says.

Simmons suggested she apply to the then-new Cedars-Sinai Research Internship Program, which enables budding biomedical scientists to participate in hands-on research. Since its launch in 2014, the program has paired more than 600 interns with faculty mentors. True to her calling, Sullivan served as a pediatrics research intern from October 2014 through July 2015.

She came back to Cedars-Sinai later in 2015 to intern in the laboratory of Ueli Rutishauser, PhD, associate professor of Neurosurgery and director of Human Neurophysiology Research. Sullivan’s efforts there included developing computer programs to process the lab’s data and co-authoring an impactful study on short-term memory. Sullivan returned to Rutishauser’s lab last summer for another internship, this time supported by a prestigious Howard Hughes Medical Institute Summer Medical Research Fellowship, which supports her work in the team’s ongoing investigations into short-term memory.

“Interns change the dynamics of a lab,” Rutishauser observes. “They bring new ideas, fresh eyes, and new points of view.”

Currently a second-year med student, Sullivan hopes to continue her relationship with Cedars-Sinai after she becomes a doctor. “Returning here as a physicianscientist is my long-term goal,” she says. “Neonatology saved my life, and I need to pay it forward.”