Biological Sciences Major Carlie Relyea Contributes to Vaccine Trials Through Co-op
By Gina Myers
February 07, 2022
When Carlie Relyea started her co-op at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, she wasn’t exactly sure what she would be doing. Hired as a clinical research assistant, she knew she would gain insight into the world of clinical research, but she didn’t know what trials she would witness, only that she was told in her interview that they had several going on.
However, it was March of 2021, and one thing was at the top of many people’s minds: the coronavirus pandemic.
Relyea quickly found herself involved in the Pfizer pediatric and adolescent vaccination trial at the Pediatric Clinical Research Center in Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital.
“It was awesome to be a part of these amazing trials. I learned a lot about how vaccination trials work, especially during a pandemic, and how everything is connected,” she says.
“I helped with subject visits—greeting the kids and parents, answering questions, helping with data entry and maintaining the charts. A lot of it was interacting with the kids to help them feel at ease because getting a shot is scary and they had to get a blood draw, too. I would help with the blood draw sometimes if they needed an extra set of hands,” she explains.
Beyond getting to interact with the children, Relyea’s favorite part of the co-op was getting to talk with healthcare professionals and being treated like a professional in return.
“I’m a student and I don’t have all these certifications, but they still treated me as part of the team, gave me responsibilities and trusted me to do things. The PIs, who were all physicians, would take the time out of their day to talk to me. Overall, the work environment was fantastic.”
The experience helped clarify Relyea’s dream of becoming a pediatric doctor.
Because she was good at science, Relyea was frequently told that she should become a doctor. So the idea was around, but it didn’t become more serious until she was in 10th grade and learned about cancer clusters—geographic areas that have a greater-than-expected number of cancer cases occurring within a group of people over a period of time.
Relyea’s hometown, Highland, NY, which is an apple farming community, was possibly a cancer cluster due to pesticide exposure over the years, but it was never officially confirmed. But seeing what was happening around her and how it affected so many people in her community made her want to do something about it.
Relyea began to learn more about cancer and was also volunteering. Then, on a field trip to a Ronald McDonald House in Albany, the head oncologist took time out of his day to talk to Relyea, and from that moment on it was clear that medical school would be in her future.
Thanks to a joint program with Ulster Community College, Relyea earned an associate’s degree by the time she graduated from high school.
With her credits transferring to Drexel, she had the option to graduate in three years but has decided to do a four-year, two-co-op program. This will also give her the opportunity to study abroad. For winter term, she is studying sociology, which she is minoring in, at Edinburgh Napier University in Scotland.
The Drexel Difference
Being from a small town, Relyea knew she wanted to attend college in a city. She was encouraged to apply to Drexel by a cousin who had attended school here. After being accepted, Relyea visited campus, and while on a walking tour, she felt at home.
“I was walking around, and I just got this feeling that I could be here the next four years,” she says. “It just felt like this could be my home.”
Relyea’s feeling of being at home on campus and in Philadelphia has only increased.
“I absolutely love Philly. I go running a lot, so I run through the city on different trails and by the river. I’ve been exploring the city more with my friends,” she says. “And I love campus. I’ve gotten really involved and have found a home here.”
Relyea has been a member of the Undergraduate Student Government Association (USGA) since her freshman year and currently serves as chair for the student organization committee. She’s also a member of Phi Delta Epsilon, the pre-med fraternity, which she has found to be extremely supportive.
“Pre-med can be really competitive, but here it isn’t. Phi Delta Epsilon is a supportive environment where you can talk about your classes and preparing for the MCAT—all the things that go along with wanting to be a doctor,” Relyea explains.
It was through Phi Delta Epsilon that she was connected with her co-op at Rutgers. She had asked a fellow member about his experience on co-op there, and he recommended that she apply.
Relyea is also a member of the sorority Delta Gamma, which she joined during the pandemic as a way to meet people, which had been difficult when classes were remote.
Her advice for fellow students who are looking to join organizations on campus is to not worry whether you have a friend already in the organization.
“All my closest friends are from organizations that I didn’t know anyone in when I joined. There are over 300 organizations on campus—I really think there is something for everyone. Just find what you’re interested in and give it a try,” says Relyea.
The opportunities at Drexel extend well beyond the numerous student organizations—there are opportunities through co-op, research and civic engagement, as well as the opportunity to explore academic subjects and take more classes due to the quarter system.
“Drexel is such an interesting school with the quarter system and co-op. It’s completely different than most schools,” Relyea says. “I’d really recommend it if you are looking for opportunities. Drexel really does have so many activities for professional development, academic support and all the different things you could want—there’s really something for everybody here.”