U. Fellow Aspires To Make a Difference in Society & Science
By Marylena Mantas
Tshaka Cunningham, a graduate fellow at Rockefeller University
and a recipient of the prestigious David Rockefeller fellowship,
quality time with his grandmother transcended visits to the local
playground. His own playground came in the form of a laboratory
at the National Cancer Institute (NCI), where he spent most of
his childhood afternoons with his grandmother, a staff researcher
at NCI for 33 years.
a very early age I thought the lab was fascinating. I was fascinated
the first time she showed me cells. That was my draw to science.
I couldn't have asked for a better teacher,” says Cunningham.
Today, Tshaka builds upon the foundation provided by his grandmother—a
woman who managed to break gender boundaries at a time when few
women, and especially African-American women worked in the field—and
conducts his own research at the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center
always wanted to do HIV research,” says Cunningham, who studies
a quirk of the HIV replication process. “So little is known about
how HIV interacts with the immune system.”
The research that he and his colleagues conduct is based upon
the fact that each time HIV enters a cell a small percentage of
its DNA fails to integrate with the cellular DNA and 2-LTR circles—a
closed circle of viral DNA in the nucleus of the infected cell—form.
Cunningham and his colleagues have learned that the 2-LTR circles
remain stable for at least one month following infection of HIV
and that they probably persist throughout the life of the cell.
Because of the structure and newly understood stability, the circles
are a possible platform for gene therapy based vaccines.
Cunningham's interest in science followed a natural progression,
which build upon his grandmother's influence and the internships
he completed when he was a student at St. Albans High School in
Washington DC. His interest in HIV intensified when he was at
Princeton University, where he completed his undergraduate studies
in molecular biology. An interaction with an acquaintance that
worked in a heroin clinic, which eventually became an HIV Center
due to the large number of patients infected, contributed to Cunningham's
asked me] can you do something? All of my friends are dying,”
says Cunningham, whose senior thesis at Princeton focused on current
strategies and future prospects for HIV. He added that his interest
in the social implications of HIV, particularly related to the
disproportionate number of African and African- Americans infected,
further enhanced his interest in researching the virus.
need to be more African and African-American scientists working
on this topic,” urges Cunningham, who wishes to contribute to
the improvement of minority recruitment in science.
my social responsibility,” he says. “a responsibility that I am
happy to take on.”
In partnership with another student from Rockefeller University,
Cunningham wishes to bring together African-American graduate
students, who live in New York City and study science. He hopes
that the team will be instrumental in mentoring and working with
inner city youth.
have to give the kid the fire. Science is a very intellectually
rewarding field,” he says, while acknowledging that attempting
to inspire youngsters to enter the research field is challenging.
Not as challenging, however, as the social environment at Princeton,
which provided Cunningham with what he considers the greatest
challenge he had to overcome.
a minority I felt all alone,” he says, of how he felt when he
first arrived to Princeton, which he attended after receiving
a full scholarship from the Washington Post. “I did not have a
professor take me under his wing. College is a point where you
doubt yourself a lot.”
How did he overcome the challenge?
sat myself down and made it personal. I said Princeton is not
going to beat me. I gave myself a pep talk. That turned me around,”
he said. “I developed coping skills in college that I have taken
After graduating from Princeton, Cunningham, the first male in
his family to go to college, worked in the pharmaceutical industry
for a few years. He quickly came to a crossroads.
asked myself what would I do if I was not getting paid money,”
he said. “And I chose science.”
For the choices he made throughout his life, he gives credit to
the influence of his mentors, which include his mother who was
determined to provide her son with the best educational opportunities.
knew two things when I was growing up. I was going to go to college
and I was going to get a scholarship,” said Cunningham, recalling
his frequent visits to the Foundation Library in Washington, DC
where, as a result of his mother's persistence, he found funding.
Evidently, persistence, in Cunningham's case has produced positive
results. On future goals he says, “I want to make an impact as
a scientist. I want to teach the next generation and to do that
I have to make sure that I am well prepared. And, I want to make
a change societally. If I could get one of the three, I'd be happy.”
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