Outer Banks Community Foundation Recognizes Scholar and Cancer Researcher Siena Nason

Siena Nason

Story by: Maggie Miles

The Outer Banks Community Foundation is pleased to announce the academic achievements of Siena Nason, a recipient of the prestigious Milton A. Jewell
Academic Scholarship.

Nason, a native of Southern Shores, has recently completed her junior year at the University of Pennsylvania, where she is engaged in groundbreaking cancer research.

Nason has always known she loved math and science but getting to work on cutting-edge cancer research at the University of Pennsylvania, one of the most prestigious universities in the country, was both unexpected and exciting.

Nason’s love of science and math took her to The North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics for her junior and senior years of high school. It was there that her passion in the fields was solidified.

“I took biochemistry and it was really fun. We got to extract mushrooms in biology, and I realized how interesting it was and how much I liked it. When I went to college, I decided to keep pursuing it and see where it led,” says Nason.

Her love of biology led her to the groundbreaking work at Ruella Lab at the Perelman School of Medicine, which specializes in next-generation CAR-T for Lymphoma and Leukemia, a type of immunotherapy that uses genetically modified T cells to fight cancer. Nason is majoring in biology with a minor in chemistry and design.  She is in a dual biology master’s program with plans for a Ph.D.

Nason’s work is focused on immunotherapy. She and her team use the innovative approach of harnessing a patient’s white blood cells and modifying them with a virus to express receptors that target cancer cells.

In her specific project, she focuses on a mutation prevalent in numerous patients, identified through samples provided by the Penn Lymphoma Society. They explore the potential of combining an FDA-approved drug with their immunotherapy technique, known as CAR-T cell therapy. This therapy involves modifying T cells with chimeric antigen receptors, designed to enhance their cancer-targeting abilities.

“Theoretically, this is for patients who have had really aggressive forms of cancer. In the past, they’ve shown that it cures about 50% of them. It reprograms your T cells, so it has a big impact. Essentially, if you are cured of the cancer, it’s hard for it to come back,” says Nason.

Though Nason didn’t know she would be a cancer researcher, she knew she was interested in doing things beyond the Outer Banks. However, making the jump to an Ivy League school is a financial challenge. To support her education, Siena was awarded the Milton A. Jewell Academic Scholarship in 2021.

 “The scholarship was extremely important, especially going to an out-of-state school like the University of Pennsylvania,” says Nason.

Nason also dedicates significant time to empowering young women in STEM fields. As co-president of Girl STEMpowerment, a non-profit organization, she spearheads interactive workshops aimed at inspiring elementary and middle school girls.

“One of the great things about working with kids is that they interact with things that you’ve kind of taken for granted. You see an activity again through their eyes and it is special watching them get excited about it,” says Nason. “Just being able to foster that love for science to these younger generations is really great.”

In between classes, lab work, and volunteering, she belongs to a neuroscience journal club that gets together to discuss papers in neuroscience. A lover of food and restaurants, she’s also been active as a content writer for Penn Appetit, a Philadelphia-based food magazine. In between work, clubs, and volunteering, she loves going to restaurants with friends, and running, and has a goal of reading three books a month this year.

Her favorite thing about science? That it’s not what everyone thinks it is.

“I’ve always been a really rational person who is interested in figuring out the truth. In research, a lot of that is trying to understand what is happening, and it requires a lot of reading and a lot of investigating,” says Nason. “The coolest thing about science that people don’t realize is that there’s a lot of creativity to it. And there’s a lot of failure.  Persistence is one of the things that I’ve learned working in the lab, because if you can’t handle a little bit of failure, then you can’t be a scientist. I feel like, you just have to keep going.”

The Outer Banks Community Foundation’s Milton A. Jewell Academic Scholarship, established in 2003,
honors exceptional students like Nason who demonstrate academic excellence, leadership, and a
commitment to their communities. This scholarship plays a crucial role in enabling students to pursue
their aspirations at prestigious institutions, fostering transformative research initiatives with global

For information on creating or contributing to charitable funds, call 252-423-3003.