Jessica Thaxton, Ph.D, MsCR

Principal Investigator

Dr. Thaxton is an Associate Professor in the Department of Cell Biology and Physiology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Dr. Thaxton received her BA from Amherst College in 2001 and her PhD from Brown University in 2009. From 2001-2004 Dr. Thaxton began her research career in transplantation immunology at Harvard Medical School and the Garvan Institute for Medical Research. In her graduate career Jessica focused on immune tolerance. In her postdoctoral work at Oregon Health & Sciences University and Medical University of South Carolina Jessica trained in the areas of virus specific T cell responses and T cell activation and metabolism in the context of cancer. Jessica was awarded the MUSC Hollings Cancer Center K12 clinical oncology investigator award where she gained further support from NCI/NIH and American Cancer Society. 

Research Team

Katie Hurst, MPH

Lab Manager

Katie graduated from Clemson University in 2012 with a BA in Biological Sciences with a minor in Psychology.  Katie’s interest in cancer biology led her to the Medical University of South Carolina after graduation to pursue a career in molecular cancer research, whereafter she transitioned into cancer immunology research.  She holds a special interest in the patient psychological response to cancer and how the immune system can regulate this response and vice versa.  Katie serves as lab manager for the Thaxton Lab during which she pursued her Masters in Public Health with a concentration in Health Behavior at the Medical University of South Carolina, where she graduated in 2020.


Ellie Hunt
Graduate Student

Ellie graduated from Anderson University in 2019 with a BS in biochemistry. Through her coursework and experience in hospital internships, she gained an interest in immunology and, after a year as a lab technician studying bioenergetics of hepatocellular carcinoma, she enrolled in MUSC’s College of Graduate Studies with an interest in immunotherapy and T cell metabolism. She joined the Thaxton Lab whose interests align with her passion for discovering more efficacious, affordable immunotherapies through modulation of T cell stress responses and metabolism. She is now enrolled in UNC-Chapel Hill’s Biological and Biomedical Sciences PhD program where she continues to study the effects of endoplasmic reticulum stress on T cell metabolism and antitumor efficacy. 


Brian Riesenberg, Ph.D

Postdoctoral scholar

Dr. Riesenberg is a postdoctoral scholar and PIRE Fellow in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at the Medical University of South Carolina. He received his B.S. in Biology from Barton College as a 4-year member the men's varsity soccer program before obtaining his Ph.D. from the Medical University of South Carolina in 2019. Prior to joining the Thaxton Lab, Brian's research took him to the Pelotonia Institute for Immuno-Oncology at The Ohio State University where he focused on T cell exhaustion, development of high-dimensional spectral flow cytometry technology, preclinical in vivo modeling, and technology commercialization. His current work is focused on translating the discoveries made by the research group into novel therapeutics to improve patient outcomes.  


Robert Esther, MD, MS

Clinical Collaborator

Dr. Esther is the sole Orthopedic Oncologist at UNC Chapel Hill and one of the state’s leading orthopedic tumor surgeons. Dr. Esther received his MD from Vanderbilt University and completed his Orthopaedic Surgery residency at UNC Chapel Hill. He then continued his training as a Musculoskeletal Oncology Fellow at the Mayo Clinic. Dr. Esther has since returned to UNC Chapel Hill as a Professor of Orthopaedics where he serves as a clinical collaborator to Dr. Thaxton’s sarcoma immunotherapy group, enabling the formation of a translationally focused research group dedicated to development of novel immunotherapies for sarcoma and metastatic bone disease patients.  Dr. Esther is enthusiastic to contribute to the basic science direction of Dr. Thaxton's research program to generate new clinical trials for sarcoma patients at Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center.


Evelyn Gandy

Research Technician

Evelyn graduated from UNC Chapel Hill in 2022 where she majored in psychology and minored in biology and chemistry. Her research interests include cancer immunotherapy, cell metabolism, and cancer signaling pathways. After volunteering in the Thaxton lab during her time as an undergraduate, Evelyn joined the Thaxton Lab as a Research Technician. Evelyn plans on attending medical school with the future goal of becoming an oncologist and developing new cancer therapies in a clinical setting.


Coral Del Mar Alicea Pauneto

Graduate Student

Coral graduated from the University of Puerto Rico at Humacao in 2015 with a BS in Industrial Chemistry. During her undergraduate year, she did multiple research internships in neuroscience and pharmacology leading her to pursue graduate studies. After graduating, she was accepted into the Pharmacology department at UNC with an interest in neuro-oncology and cancer immunotherapy. At the beginning of her graduate student career, she focused on studying myeloid-directed immunotherapy to treat medulloblastoma. After this experience, she pursued her interest in understanding immunotherapy from a cell biology perspective, where she then joined the Thaxton lab. Coral studies the chronic role of ATF4, a transcription factor important in endoplasmic reticulum stress in tumor-infiltrating T cells, with the ultimate goal of discovering an immunotherapy target.

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Maggie Hynek

Undergraduate Student

Maggie Hynek is an undergraduate student at UNC Chapel Hill pursuing a degree in Chemistry with a minor in Medical Anthropology. Her research interests include cancer immunotherapy and T cell metabolism. Additionally, she is passionate about accessible healthcare for women in underserved communities. Maggie plans to attend graduate school and pursue a career in research after completing her undergraduate studies. 

Lab Alumni


Alex Andrews, PhD


Kiley Lawrence


Medical Student

Megan Tennant, MS

PhD Student


Molly Sekar, MD

Medical Student


Sydney Larsen
Undergraduate Student

K9 Unit

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Julie                                  Millie                              Cal & Morrie

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