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Deborah Ayeni

College: City College
Awards: National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, 2012

A Personal Quest To Quell Cancer

From the time her grandmother died of breast cancer in Nigeria, Deborah Opeyemi Ayeni has been "very curious about cancer,' hoping "to understand how it develops, progresses and moves in the body."

Now, with a 2012 National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, Ayeni (City College, 2011) will continue probing cancer-causing genes in her doctoral program in experimental pathology at the Yale School of Medicine. Ultimately, she says, she will look for "ways of interfering with cancer pathways, tumor regression and how cancers develop resistance to chemical agents."

Ayeni emigrated to New York City in 2006 and started at City College the next year. While pursuing a biochemistry major and math minor, she won several scholarships, including the City College Fellowship, which CCNY and the Ford Foundation fund to support PhD-bound students who are interested in research, and a National Institutes of Health Minority Access to Research Careers (MARC) Fellowship.

"They provided funding, so I didn't have to worry about working," she says. "The City College Fellowship, especially, really groomed me when I got to the phase of applying to graduate school."

Indeed, she and two classmates who received that fellowship are at Yale. The MARC Fellowship allowed her to go to conferences and "to network with people from all over the country."

She also won a Jonas E. Salk Scholarship for graduate work, which CUNY awards to students who plan careers in medicine and the biological sciences and are deemed likely to make significant contributions to medicine and research. They are selected on the basis of original research papers that they work on with prominent scientist-mentors. Calling the Salk scholarship "very important," she adds, "I feel very honored to be recognized by CUNY."

Ayeni's Salk-winning project, undertaken with City College Professor Barbara Zajc, involved the synthesis of fluorinated alkenes, which are used in pharmaceuticals and agrochemicals, through a process known as Julia-Kocienski olefination. Zajc, she says, "is a great mentor. I developed the skills I have from her. I e-mailed her about two minutes after I found out about the NSF fellowship."

Ayeni anticipates a career in industrial research, perhaps with a pharmaceutical or biotechnology company. At Yale, she is finishing the last of three laboratory rotations - which expose students to different areas and professors within their field of interest - before selecting the path she will follow using the NSF grant. One was in a lab that explores lung cancer metastasis, another was a cancer stem-cell lab that focuses on acute megakaryoblastic leukemia.

She's already made up her mind: The experimental pathology lab where she worked with assistant professor of medicine Katerina Politi. During that rotation, she investigated the role of the Myc family of genes in causing lung tumors. Myc genes are proto-oncogenes, meaning that cancer may result if mutation alters their activity. Preliminary evidence suggests that the level of expression of various members of the Myc family differs in tumors from patients with non-small cell lung cancer.

"I wanted to understand the effect of these genes on tumor growth and to evaluate if they play a role in the development of tumor resistance to certain chemotherapeutic drugs," she says.

Last semester, Ayeni was in the inaugural group of Yale students to receive a Gruber Science Fellowship, which supports graduate students in the physical and life sciences.

The NSF Graduate Research Fellowships are the most prestigious awards a graduate student in the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) can receive. Providing $126,000 over three years, they recognize and support exceptional students who have proposed graduate-level research projects in their fields.