Education is important to Lashawn Peña. The son of two immigrants from the Dominican Republic, a place he lived as a child, it became clear to Peña at an early age the many opportunities being born in New York afforded him. The first of his family to graduate from high school, he exemplifies what we commonly imagine is the American dream.
Peña became interested in medicine after witnessing violence and trauma throughout his childhood in New York City. As an incoming second-year student at SUNY Downstate Health Sciences University in Brooklyn, New York, he hopes to become a physician who can contribute solutions to his community and others struggling with similar challenges.
As part of his medical journey, Peña is taking part in Harvard Catalyst’s Visiting Research Internship (VRIP) Program. An eight-week mentored internship for first- and-second year medical students, VRIP is designed to create interest in clinical and translational research careers and enhance diversity in the workforce. Interns are paired with Harvard faculty mentors who guide them through unique research projects.
We caught up with Peña as he was about to embark on the last two weeks of the program.
What are you working on this summer? Tell me about your research project.
This summer, I’m really privileged to be working with George Molina, MD, a surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. My research project involves studying patients with pancreatic cancer, specifically, pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma, which is a very aggressive cancer that’s often caught late. Because of this, the chance of survival is low. If the cancer is caught early though, surgeons can remove the tumor.
My role is investigating the differences in survival and pathological outcomes between patients that receive surgery compared to those who receive neoadjuvant therapy prior to surgery such as chemotherapy, radiation, and immunotherapy. Utilizing a database from Brigham and Women’s Hospital, I’m looking at patient results from the surgical oncology group.
“The faculty are authentic. They’re not giving us cliché answers and you can tell they want to be there.”
So far, I’m seeing that there is a difference between patients who receive some sort of neoadjuvant treatment prior to surgery and those that don’t. I’m currently analyzing the data and pathological outcomes, noting a difference between these two groups. This indicates that there is a benefit to receiving treatment prior to surgery.
What impact has your mentor had on you this summer?
Dr. Molina has been an amazing mentor. What I like about him most is how dedicated he is to being there for me. Not only does he meet with me during his lab meetings, but he also has a one-on-one meeting with me every Thursday. That was something that took me by surprise and something that I really appreciate, because it shows me that he really cares about my growth, and my summer here, and wants me to have the best experience.
Working with him on this project has allowed me to think about what I want to do and where I want to be once I graduate from medical school. He has also strongly influenced me to think about surgery, as well about obtaining a public health degree, or even dedicating a year to research.
What has your favorite part of the program been so far?
I really enjoy the faculty seminars. Every Thursday, a new faculty member comes and speaks to us. I’ve participated in summer programs in my undergrad and throughout my academic journey, so I’m familiar with these types of seminars, but what I like about the VRIP seminars is that they’re different.
For example, two weeks ago we met with Robert Higgins, MD, president of Brigham and Women’s Hospital. He was very open and told us about his experience as a surgeon as a Black man, and even now, some of the struggles he continues to have.
I like that the faculty aren’t worried about trying to be politically correct, and they don’t just tell us what we want to hear. They really come in and ask us, “What do you want us to talk about?” They tell us about themselves and their journey, but they give us control. They say, “Ask me a question,” and “What do you want to know?” The faculty are authentic. They’re not giving us cliché answers and you can tell they want to be there.