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National Minority Health Month Spotlight: Juan Luis Mendoza, PhD

, by CRCHD Staff

For National Minority Health Month, the National Cancer Institute (NCI) Center to Reduce Cancer Health Disparities (CRCHD) will feature researchers and projects that are dedicated to reducing cancer health disparities. This spotlight features University of Chicago Assistant Professor Juan Luis Mendoza, PhD, the recipient of an NCI CRCHD Mentored Research Scientist Development Award to Promote Diversity (K01) Award.

Tackling Major Knowledge Gaps with the CURE K01 Award

Like many others, Juan Luis Mendoza, PhD, was moved to pursue a career in cancer research because he witnessed friends and family suffer or die from cancer:

…My personal inspiration is a connection and empathy for those impacted by this deadly disease. As a scientist, I am in a position to fight cancer by contributing to the scientific and medical communities through my research.

While at Stanford University, Dr. Mendoza was awarded an NCI Continuing Umbrella of Research Experiences (CURE) K01 Award. Winning the award impacted the issues Dr. Mendoza targeted for his research:

…I was able to take big chances to tackle major knowledge gaps in my field. By working on difficult scientific problems, I am hopeful my research will make a significant impact and contribution to several scientific fields.

This research currently focuses on cytokines—understanding them and designing and testing engineered cytokines to battle cancer rather than to aid or abet it:

Cancerous tissue quickly evolves to rapidly grow and evade the human immune system. The goal of my research is to understand how cytokines, the signaling molecules of the immune system, either contribute to their growth or have diminished anti-cancer activities. By engineering cytokines and studying their three-dimensional structures, I aim to understand the molecular basis of cytokine activity in a cancer setting, and design and test engineered cytokines to help the immune system fight cancer.

Mentoring has afforded Dr. Mendoza opportunities at different stages of his career. From his time as an undergraduate, when he participated in National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health programs for students from underprivileged backgrounds, to opportunities that allowed him to be the first person in his extended family to earn a PhD, and up until now, as a young faculty member:

Great mentorship both formal and informal has been key to my success during my graduate and postdoctoral training years and continues to be an important aspect of my career…

Dr. Mendoza joined the University of Chicago as an Assistant Professor in the Institute for Molecular Engineering and the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology in November 2018. Over the past five years, he has published nine manuscripts in high-impact journals which include Nature, Cell, Immunity, and eLife:

The funding and duration of the K01 award allowed me to focus my time and energy on training and research. In addition to the salary support, the ability to fund reagents and supplies assured I had the tools necessary to execute experiments efficiently and acquire data others might have not considered due to financial concerns.

As it relates to career development, the annual, in-person workshop for CURE scholars was “extremely valuable,” Dr. Mendoza says:

The CURE Professional Development Workshop (PDW) offers an opportunity to meet other K awardees, learn about their work, meet members of the NCI in person, learn about extramural funding programs, and participate in mock grant review sessions. I strongly believe participation in the PDW has given me unique advantages in knowledge and experiences over colleagues at the same stage in my career.

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