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New York City
June 2002

Rockefeller U. Fellow Aspires To Make a Difference in Society & Science
By Marylena Mantas

For 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.

“From 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 in Manhattan.

“I've 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 research choice.

“[He 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.

“There 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.

“It's 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.

“You 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.

“As 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?

“I 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 with me.

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.

“I 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.

“I 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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