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CBC student applies skills as cancer researcher

Story by Christopher S. Pineo | Photo of Meucci Ilunga, a Navajo research student at the University of Arizona Cancer Center, explaining details of a poster for a study on genomes in mice to another Navajo student. | February 1, 2018 | Copyright Navajo Times Publishing Co., Inc.

A Navajo student graduated early from Window Rock High School, but college brought a whole new challenge and pitted his skills against a deadly scourge of his people – cancer.

“It does hit me hard, because I know that this is a disease among many others Native Americans are disproportionately affected by … and so for me it really is an emotional experience, because I know that whatever I do here could have direct implications for my people,” said Meucci Ilunga, who graduated a year early in 2016. “That is inspiring for me,” he said, “but it also gives me a little bit of fear.”

Ilunga, son of a Congolese father and a Navajo mother, grew up in Kinlichee, Arizona. He kept a straight 4.0 throughout middle school and into high school, where he graduated a year early after an appeal to the governing board of the Window Rock Unified School District. By the time he requested early graduation, he had 26 credits — four more than the 22 required to graduate, had already been accepted at 11 academic institutions, and had been dual-enrolled at Diné College since the second semester of 2015.

He took that level of academic success and applied it at the University of Arizona, where he sought bachelor’s degrees in both applied mathematics and biochemistry, with a minor in Spanish. He set out to maintain the same level of academic excellence, but college showed the stripes of a different animal than his previous academic experience.

“I walked into my first exam, confident in my abilities and confident in what my results had been in high school, and that was the first exam I had ever failed,” he said. “It was
horrible.”

He had to make a change. In his previous education, he had found that classroom time had provided enough to familiarize himself with test material. In his first failure of an exam, he learned that he had to depend less on the teacher in the classroom and more on himself in his study time and even free time. He would change his behavior
as a result, but first he would change his attitude toward school.

“Everything rests on nobody’s shoulders but my own,” Ilunga said.

To shift his behavior, he would consider what he read in the class text and then explore a subject on more academic parts of YouTube, listen to a TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) Talk, or even buy additional textbooks to explore the subject.

“Reading through those different perspectives for a topic gave me this really great intuition into what was really happening,” he said. “Diversifying textbooks, diversifying
where you’re getting your information, and really understanding the fact that you are doing this for yourself, you’re bringing this knowledge to yourself, and that’s really what changed between the first exam and where I’m at today.”

Hold on, additional textbooks? Don’t college students struggle just to pay for the textbooks and
basic living expenses that they need?

“My mom was able to save so I could have a $300-a-month stipend that my mom just gave me, and she divided up very consciously,” Ilunga said. “Itwas like $50 gas, $100 entertainment, $100 food, and then I had $50 that I could really, really go all out if I wanted to go to the movies or just get a donut or something.”

Instead, he spent the extra money on extra textbooks and got some textbooks from his father’s college years.

A college student who spent his extra income on additional textbooks? Um, OK.

As a result, he “managed to keep my nice, sparkly 4.0 GPA thus far.”

Exploring subjects using more than one source helped him get a handle on the academic side, but entering actual research projects would present a new challenge. He would
have to operationalize what he learned.

“Research and academics, they’re related, but they’re very, very different beasts,” Ilunga said. “In academics, from a typical academic career, you’re really kind of just learning stuff that’s already been figured out.”

He started his research career at the UofA research collaboration Bio5 Institute, where he studied the impact of firefighting gear on the risk of cancer. That, he said, changed
the dynamic as he transitioned from student to researcher.

“You’re on the frontier,” he said. “Your whole point, the whole point when you’re doing research, or in your graduate career, is to go and find something that nobody has ever figured out before.”

Having cut his teeth as a researcher, he moved on to genetic research, investigating the development of biological genomes and the biochemical functions of the genes they
encode. Now 18, the scientist-in-training added the experience of lab work to his academic pedigree. \At the UofA Cancer Center he worked under Dr. Christina
Laukaitis and Dr. Robert Karn, both cancer researchers.

“His independence and his ability to think outside the box are a key scope for giving him this project, so it’s a little bit of a high-risk, high-reward project where I’m hoping that he’ll be able to forge some new connections,” said Laukaitis.

Sponsored by the National Institutes of Health and UofA’s Partnership for Native American Cancer Prevention, he worked in a program for Native American undergraduates.
In the lab, Ilunga studied the amplification and sequencing of mouse genomes. He worked to sequence, identify, and compare specific gene regions in mice, to analyze the functions of certain proteins and better understand their connections to genome instability.

“Genome instability, being a hallmark of cancer, is important to understand for the continued development of future cancer treatments,” reads the discussion section of a study he worked on. “Understanding gene family expansion, therefore, has real and translatable implications for cancer research and therapy in humans,” the section stated.

Laukitis explained why cancer challenge might be better met by putting demographics and thought, like the perspective of a reservation-raised Navajo, into the picture rather than just giving positions to high-performing students.

“I think that having different viewpoints and thinking about the problem in different ways is valuable,” she said. “If you are always going about asking the questions in the
same way as people with the same basic assumptions about the world, you’re going to be always getting the same kind of answers.”

A poster for the study credited Ilunga, Karn, Laukaitis, Kiana Diehl, and Corina Mauss.

A Chief Manuelito Scholar, Ilunga said he hopes to move on to study medicine and return home to help the people he said “gave him so much to love about life."

Story published with permission of Navajo Times Publishing Co., Inc.

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