Spurred by her father’s illness, Joanna Georgiou turns a Fulbright into a shot at better drugs

Wednesday, Jul 6, 2022
by Brittany Murray, for Princeton CBE

Joanna Georgiou knows first-hand what a difference successful cancer therapies make, having witnessed the ups and downs of her father’s prostate cancer over the past eight and a half years.

“I've seen him literally be bedridden, but then he would try a new therapy, and all of a sudden, he is walking around and has the gift of five more months,” Georgiou said. The last successful treatment allowed her father to travel to his homeland of Greece, where he got to swim in the sea.

Now, Georgiou, an Eastchester, New York native and recent graduate of Princeton CBE, has received a Fulbright award, allowing her to study advanced cancer drugs in a research lab at Seoul National University in South Korea.

“I want to do something that I enjoy doing that has some tangible effect on society,” she said. “Not exactly making new drugs, but maybe making the ones that we have better and more effective.”

A blue glove holding a device with 4 needles sticking out the top

For her thesis, Georgiou worked in Prud'homme's lab on a project to make nanoparticles for tuberculosis treatments. The research centers around a technique invented by Prud'homme in 2003. Photo by Sameer A. Khan/Fotobuddy

Georgiou had the opportunity to explore her interest in biotechnology as an undergraduate during her thesis work with Robert K. Prud’homme, professor of chemical and biological engineering. Her project, in collaboration with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, investigated a low-cost oral dosage of anti-tuberculosis medication.

She will build on that work in the Fulbright U.S. Student Program, developing localized chemotherapy treatments for a form of aggressive brain cancer as part of a team of researchers led by professor Taeghwan Hyeon. Chemotherapy works by attacking cancer cells, but current formulations can also attack healthy cells on the way to the tumor, leading to adverse effects. More localized treatment could have fewer downsides.

Georgiou said she was thankful not only for the opportunity but for the dozens of people who dedicated their time to help her apply for and ultimately win the Fulbright award.

"I think it shows off the community at Princeton,” she said. “Everyone's been so supportive of me to get this big application together.”

As the daughter of two Greek immigrants, Georgiou was raised bilingually and quickly developed strong ties to her parents’ home country. Being a first-generation American gave her a great appreciation for languages and for understanding other cultures, particularly as her extended family remained in Greece.

That love of language and culture drove her to study French as a middle school student, Spanish for two years in high school, and Korean while at Princeton. The summer following her first year at Princeton, Georgiou studied abroad in Europe.

“I really loved the experience of being in a new country and getting to use French,” she said. “It was fun and interesting to be in a different environment and understand the pace of being in a new country.”

She had hoped to take part in an internship in Scotland the summer following her sophomore year, but that was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, she did a virtual internship for GreenID, a nonprofit environmental organization in Vietnam. Last summer, Georgiou completed an internship with the biomedical sciences department at the University of West Attica in Greece.

In addition to her studies, as an undergraduate Georgiou was active in numerous organizations across Princeton’s campus, including the Society of Women Engineers and Princeton Club Swimming. She also mentored first-year engineering students as part of a program run by the School of Engineering and Applied Science.

Georgiou graduated with honors as part of the Class of 2022, earning her degree in chemical engineering with certificates in Engineering Biology and French.

This article was originally published on the Chemical and Biological Engineering website.