Father’s memory inspires Cal State LA student to further cancer research
He will pursue a Ph.D. in the fall at UC Davis.
By LeAnn Zuniga | Cal State LA News Service
Benjamin Nittayo witnessed firsthand the potential new vaccines and therapies hold for improving the lives of cancer patients.
After his father was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia, a parainfluenza virus vaccine provided through a clinical trial gave Nittayo’s family more time with his father, Nittayo says. His father later died. This experience motivated Nittayo to focus his research on developing better vaccines and therapies for those with cancer.
“I didn’t really want cancer to have the last word,” says the 24-year-old Arcadia resident, who graduated in May with a Bachelor of Science in Biology and a minor in microbiology from Cal State LA. “I wanted to go back and remember all the good moments I had with my dad and move this forward.”
Nittayo’s interest in health care started while he was attending Pasadena City College. As a student, he served more than 700 hours volunteering in the emergency room at Methodist Hospital of Southern California in Arcadia and in patient care at Adventist Health Glendale in the orthopedics and oncology units.
The work was often emotionally difficult for Nittayo, especially when he started working closely with patients. He came to appreciate that caring for patients extends beyond treating illness and disease to preserving their dignity during such a difficult time.
Inspired by his experience as a clinical volunteer, Nittayo transferred to Cal State LA with the goal of pursuing a career in biomedicine.
Shortly after Nittayo started at Cal State LA in 2014, his father was diagnosed. Nittayo spent much of his time visiting him at City of Hope during his treatment.
Nittayo returned to City of Hope in 2016 as a research intern in the Department of Experimental Therapeutics through the Eugene and Ruth Roberts Summer Student Academy, a competitive program for students interested in biomedical research. He continued this work during the year and returned to the nationally renowned clinical research center again last summer to continue his work in experimental therapeutics.
During his time at Cal State LA, Nittayo worked in Professor Nathan J. Lanning’s research lab, investigating the role mitochondria play in cancer biology.
“Ben is an inspiration to me, the members of my research lab group, and many others here at Cal State LA,” Lanning says.
Nittayo received two research fellowships through the Minority Opportunities in Research (MORE) programs at Cal State LA, including the Minority Biomedical Research Support-Research Initiative for Scientific Enhancement (MBRS-RISE) and Minority Access to Research Careers-Undergraduate Student Training for Academic Research (MARC-U*STAR) programs.
MARC-U*STAR is an undergraduate honors research training program on campus that focuses on preparing students to complete a Ph.D. program in their field of study. Through this program, Nittayo has conducted research, presented his work and mentored other young researchers at Cal State LA.
Nittayo also served as the vice president for the Cal State LA Cancer Research and Awareness Society, an organization that works to educate the public about different types of cancers and raises money for local hospitals.
After graduation, Nittayo will pursue a Ph.D. at the University of California, Davis in the fall. He was awarded the Floyd and Mary Schwall Fellowship in Medical Research from the university to fund his studies.
In the future, Nittayo hopes to develop further therapeutic treatments and vaccines for cancer patients in memory of his father.
“I know cancer very intimately, and I feel like other people don’t have to suffer the same way my dad did,” Nittayo says. “If I could make it a little bit better for them, then my job is done.”