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Classroom Activity: Scientist Profiles

The following profiles are excerpts from the Jim Allison: Breakthrough companion book, This is What a Hero Looks Like. This companion photography book expands on the film’s portrait of Nobel Prize-winning scientist Jim Allison, and celebrates cancer scientists from all over the world at different stages in their career – all united by their passion to defeat one of the world’s deadliest diseases.


As you scroll over each scientist, you will see background information. Choose THREE scientists to learn more about. Click on each scientist’s picture and read the expanded biographies. Once you have finished, complete this worksheet.


Today, I'm a cancer geneticist and founder of the Hampton University Cancer Research Center - where we're looking at incidence rates of cancer in ethnically diverse and underserved populations. That feeling of discovery is something that continues to excite me to this day.


When I make a new connection or develop hypotheses - I feel like my heart skips a beat - just like it did as a young girl in Puerto Rico. 


Born: Puerto Rico

Currently: Hampton University, Hampton, Virginia

Luisel Ricks-Santi MD

For the past 10 years, I have worked in drug development with only a bachelor's degree. I don't mind being the naive one. I can ask the questions no one else wants to ask. I don't mind being wrong because that's usually when I learn the most; sometimes it's the "stupid" question that ends up being the most important part. Now I'm the Chief Scientific Officer at a very innovative biotech. 


Born: Michigan

Currently: Skyhwk Therapeutics, Boston, MA

Kathleen McCarthy

First, I pursued a degree in zoology, but I quickly realized that I wanted my scientific research to benefit people. During this time, I was also becoming aware of feeling uneasy in my own country. Being a Jew in Soviet Ukraine, I always felt like a stranger - whether it was at University or on the streets. I moved to Israel and began to study neuroscience and completed my PhD. I finally found my niche in the field of cancer molecular biology. 


Born: Soviet Union

Currently: Ariel University, Ariel, Israel

Elimelech Nesher PhD

I was born in Nigeria in 1978, November 19th, to be precise. I'm the first girl in the family, I have six brothers and sisters and with my cousins there were 18 of us in the household. I showed an early passion for medicine and health, perhaps because my mother was a nurse and my father was an engineer. When my father asked me what I wanted to do when I was 6 years old, I told him, "I want to be a doctor."


Born: Nigeria

Currently: Morehouse School of Medicine, Atlanta, Georgia

Olayinka Adebayo MD

I’ve always been interested in studying human health. Both my mom and my sister were teenage moms, and my high school needed a daycare on site because so many students were having kids. So, I’m inspired to educate women in my community about their options, because so often teenage pregnancies are due to a lack of information.
After I finish my education, I will continue to help patients in the US, but I also want to work in Ecuador where the need for medical care is so acute. 


Born: Ecuador

Currently: Hunter College, New York, NY

Cristina Zambrano

I remember a quote I heard from one of my mentors in the early days. He said, “the doctors prescribe medicine, but those medicines were actually discovered by a scientist." This pushed me to continue my studies in science. I got my PhD in Italy and came to America to work at UT Houston. 

My longterm plan is to return to India and open my own research lab; I wanted to do something, like service, maybe something I can get just enough for myself and my family to live and give me peace of mind that I am helping the poor and those in need.


Born: India

Currently: University of Houston, Houston, TX

Hariprasad Thangavel PhD

I was a biomedical engineer with two young children when I was diagnosed with breast cancer.  I decided to spend whatever time I had left with my family.
While getting treatment, I would come in with a stack of journal articles to review with my doctor at each visit. Some clinicians might not appreciate that approach, but he was wonderful, so we would spend five minutes on my exam and the rest of the appointment time chatting about the latest medical research in breast cancer. It helped me handle the stress of my treatment.


Born: Oklahoma

Currently: National Cancer Institute, Southlake, TX

Carole Baas PhD

As a scientist, my work is a bucket full of challenges and achievements, so I have learned to take the “highs” with the “lows” each day on this journey. My research focus is on mitigating the side effects of chemotherapy through tumor targeted approaches. I believe that in the next couple of years this field will present some exciting new contributions to cancer research; I hope I can play some role in this progress!


Born: Ghana

Currently: University of Bradford, Bradford, United Kingdom

Francis Barnieh PhD

My family moved to the US from Pakistan when I was 18 months old, so essentially I am a first-generation American. It was hard for my parents as immigrants - my father worked four jobs when I was growing up, but education was their focus. No one in my family was in the sciences or had even gotten a secondary education, so I had no direction or help in that area. But I'm a really hard worker; and I'm very focused. I know what I and I know I can do it. I just pushed myself towards it. I don't allow myself to give up. 


Born: Pakistan

Currently: University of Maryland School of Medicine, Baltimore, MD

Kanwal Mahmood

My mother was a middle school science teacher and my role model. She would take me to her classroom and I watched her teach science, making science fun and understandable. When I decided to study Chemistry, I thought I would end my studies after completing my Bachelor’s degree. No one in my family has an advanced degree. But after getting my first research position, I realized that the research bench is where I belong. I finally made the connection between science research and its benefit to society. I am getting my PhD in Environmental Health.


Born: Puerto Rico

Currently: Univ of Puerto Rico School of Medicine, San Juan, PR

Ailed M Cruz-Collazo

My introduction to science came from watching Bill Nye, The Science Guy. Just before finishing my degree in computer science at Tuskegee University, I ended up doing data analysis in a lab that was looking at the genetic connection between African American women and Quadruple Negative Breast Cancer - for which there are limited treatment options. I loved the research. I went on to get my master’s in biology and am working at Mt. Sinai Hospital looking at ancestry and its connection to cancer.


Born: Georgia

Currently: Mount Sinai Hospital, New York, NY

Raymond Hughley MS

I was 25 and a paratrooper in the military when I was diagnosed with cancer.  Jumping out of airplanes for a job, you have to face your mortality, but the phrase ‘you have cancer’ rocked my world completely.

I was on my heels until a doctor friend asked me what I was going to do with my life. I told him I had no frickin’ clue. He said, ‘well, have you ever thought about medicine?’ 

Now I’m starting a master’s program at NC State before applying to med school. 


Born: Louisiana

Currently: North Carolina State University, Durham, NC

Matthew Bergens

I grew up in France in a working-class city, with a chemical plant at its center. My grandparents were poor farmers, so I was not expected to succeed. I decided to study science and medicine. 

People should look at my picture and my profession and believe they can do anything. My grandparents were poor farmers in the middle of nowhere in France, and I was able to find my way in – so you shouldn’t be shy about dreaming, but you should also be prepared to work your ass off!


Born: France

Currently: Dragonfly Therapeutics, Boston, Massachusetts

Jean-Marie Cuillerot MD

I am a visual artist and a scientist. I have always drawn or painted. I think that there are a lot of scientists that are artists, but for some reason there’s this disconnect between the two. It’s like, “Well, this is an art thing and that’s science.” I used to think that way. I thought I had to choose one or the other. But I had some very passionate science teachers in school and I was able to make the connection between some of the abstract principles of science and the abstract artists I loved, like Dali and other surrealists.


Born: Florida

Currently: Georgetown University Medical Center, Washington, DC

Alex Taraboletti PhD

My grandfather was the strongest man I knew, and as his only granddaughter, I was immensely loved. I was 7 when he passed away. As a child, I couldn’t understand why he had to go so early. 
As a 13-year-old, when my parents told me that my grandfather died of gastric cancer, I wanted to know what cancer was. What was this horrible disease that took the most important man in my life away from me?


Born: India

Currently: University of Miami, Miami, Florida

Nikita Sharma, MS

When I was 6, my mom bought me The Way Things Work. There was a chapter on atoms that really fascinated me – I couldn’t envision these atoms in my head and I just wanted a simple picture of them, but my mom said we couldn’t see them because they make up everything. That started my love of science.

Today, I work in precision medicine – trying to improve the efficacy of FDA-approved therapies for ovarian cancer. 


Born: Illinios

Currently: NYU Langone Medical Center, New York, NY

Monica Wielgos-Bonvallet PhD

My dad was my greatest science hero. He and my mother were first-generation Americans. He was a microbiologist and worked for the Surgeon General. I remember going to the lab with him on weekends and tinkering while he worked. My father told me that at the end of the day you need to feel good about what you’ve contributed, was it positive? does it make the world a little better? Science offered me a path to do that.


Born: Kentucky

Currently: Skyhawk Therapeutics, Boston, MA

Mike Luzzio PhD

Growing up, I had a family doctor who was with me from my birth up until high school. Starting at a young age, I would pepper him with questions about his work. When I was in ninth grade, he let me shadow as he saw patients, walking me through his thinking – how he would identify, analyze, and understand the information that allowed him to help his patients. He taught me the science behind his decision-making, which really excited me and got me interested in medicine.


Born: Virginia

Currently: University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA

Zunair Khokhar

Stubbornness is one of the essential qualities of a scientist. I witness it every day in my lab. We just don’t quit until we get the answer.

I love unveiling the truth - it’s like turning on the light in a dark room, and leaving it on for all the world to see.


Born: France

Currently: National Cancer Institute, Washington, DC

Laetitia Marzi PhD

To some extent, a band’s almost like the lab. When a lab’s working well, there’s an interplay with your colleagues, where you suggest an idea and they give something in reply and it’s the back and forth. It’s the same way in a band when you get with your friends and colleagues and you finally hit it off, where you get to the point where you could just nod. You finish playing something, and you nod to the person and the next person just picks it up instantly. There’s a continuity that comes out of it that takes everybody participating.   READ MORE

Born: Texas

Currently: MD Anderson Cancer Center, Houston, Texas

Jim Allison PhD

I received my bachelor's and master’s degrees in Physics from Istanbul University, which is the oldest university in Turkey and dates back to the Ottoman Empire. It was something magical to sit in the classrooms of my ancestors.  My worldview expanded beyond the walls of my home country as I moved abroad to do research in Germany. It was there, working on lung cancer, that I first felt I was doing work that contributed to people’s lives.


Born: Turkey

Currently: Duke University, Durham, NC

Sultan Damgaci PhD

Hearing Jim Allison’s story was so refreshing. At the time, I was at a really low point. I had been working on the same thing for a while and was getting frustrated and questioning whether my work was even meaningful. Being reminded that other scientists go through their own struggles and relating to their story is very motivating. It gives me conviction and confidence about what I’m doing.


Born: California

Currently: University of California, San Francisco, San Francisco, CA

Emmalyn Chen

I came to the U.S. with my parents when I was 12. My parents were refugees fleeing the Soviet Union. We moved to Brooklyn and it was tough getting integrated. I was an extremely average student, in part because of the language barrier. So, my mom invested a lot of time, sitting down with me, trying to figure out how I could get a passing grade in school. It wasn’t until the end of high school and beginning of college, when I became intensely interested in DNA and epigenetics, and my love of science began.


Born: Soviet Union

Currently: NYU Langone Medical Center, New York, NY

Tanya Panchenko PhD

When I was 11 years old, I knew I wanted to be a scientist. Over summer break, when everybody was on vacation, I stayed home and read our science textbook. I would just sit and read that book until I memorized it. I fell in love with biology and joined the Biology Olympiad program at my school. I got the second-highest score in Iran!


Born: Iran

Currently: Yale School of Medicine, New Haven, CT

Vesal Yaghoobi PhD

I come from a family of rebels. That’s how I look at it.

My mom is Muslim, and my dad is Hindu, and I was born in Guyana, a very small third-world country in 1970.  A Hindu marrying a Muslim broke religious norm; political circumstances in Guyana would not tolerate this, so our family was targeted and threatened. For our own safety, we came to America as immigrants when I was 10 years old.


Born: Guyana

Currently: MD Anderson Cancer Center, Houston, TX

Padmanee Sharma MD PhD

I grew up in Denmark. I had a very safe and playful childhood. I had the freedom to go out into nature and have little adventures. Science is about exploring, being curious and following that curiosity to new discoveries. I can see a connection between my childhood wanderings in nature and my love of science.


Born: Denmark

Currently: Dragonfly Therapeutics, Boston, MA

Nicolai Wagtmann PhD

In Turkey, young kids are always asked “What will you be when you grow up?”  but I never knew what to say.
My dad saw my struggle and suggested science to encourage me to explore more non-traditional career options. The idea opened up new horizons for me. I never thought a career in science was possible, I had never seen a scientist in real life and thought they only existed in science fiction. It was a surreal idea, especially for girls in 1980s Turkey.  


Born: Turkey

Currently: Duke University, Durham, NC

Ozgun Erdogan PhD
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