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Turning Cancer Cells into Cancer-Fighting Cells

The son of Dominican immigrants who worked in clothing factories, Lashawn Peña was born in New York and spent his early childhood in Manhattan. While both of his parents had limited schooling, Peña always loved reading and science, and was deeply affected when he saw his sister shot and a doctor save her life. At 10 he moved to the Dominican Republic, but he came back to New York to finish high school and pursue his own dream of becoming a doctor.

Peña began his undergraduate years at Borough of Manhattan Community College, and upon earning his AA, chose Hunter for its reputation in pre-med studies. He switched his career goal from clinical medicine to medical research after participating in the NIH-funded Blue Print for Enhancing Neuroscience Diversity in Undergraduate Research Education (BP-ENDURE), which encourages students from groups underrepresented in STEM to enter neuroscience research. BP-ENDURE gave Peña the opportunity to join laboratories not only at Hunter, but also at the University of Michigan and NYU.

A psych major with a neuroscience concentration, Peña credits his Hunter laboratory work with Professors  Vanya Quiñones-Jenab and Regina Miranda for his successful transition to research science. After graduating, still not sure about his precise path, “I took a year off to figure out exactly what I wanted to do.”

It was a year well spent. Peña moved to North Carolina to join the NIH Postbaccalaureate Research Education Program at UNC-Chapel Hill, where he found his bliss – in immunology. Today he is in Stanford University’s immunology PhD program, where the scientists know that a leukemia cell can be reprogrammed to turn benign but don’t know what allows that to happen. Peña is trying to figure it out.

He sees his long-term future in the exciting realm of using the immune system to fight cancer, and in teaching – especially in teaching students from backgrounds like his own: “Teaching has been my number one passion ever since I worked as a TA at Hunter.”

When he looks back at Hunter, he is also grateful that besides getting a great education, “I’m blessed not to have the debt that others here at Stanford have. And I’m proud that a lot of people here know about, and admire, the discoveries being made by Hunter’s science faculty.”

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