Early experiences in medicine inspire Julio Pimentel to tackle disparities in cancer research
Julio Pimentel, Ph.D. ‘23, learned early on the importance of formal education. From Turlock, Calif., two hours east of San Francisco, Pimentel was raised by first-generation immigrants from Mexico. Neither of his parents went to high school or college. It was important to them that Pimentel harness opportunities that they never had.
“My parents and those in my community stressed the importance of getting an education but didn’t really know how to go about it,” he said.
Pimentel conducted his own research on the college application process, studied for entrance exams, and enrolled close to home at California State University, Stanislaus. To fund his tuition, he took on a position as a certified nursing assistant at a nearby hospital, where he immediately noticed a lack of Hispanic healthcare providers.
“Many of the nurses and doctors spoke only English, and yet they were prescribing these medications to non-native speakers,” he said. “Many of these patients had no idea what they were taking or why. I would translate for these patients. I would tell them what they were taking and the doses, ultimately increasing patient-physician compliance.”
Many of the patients Pimentel worked with had cancer and were from underrepresented communities where the disease was more prevalent. He was inspired by his experience to pursue a Ph.D. in cancer research.
Where there’s a will
After a stint at the University of Miami where Pimentel earned an M.S. in clinical research and translational medicine, he started applying to Ph.D. programs. The cancer biology department at the Wayne State University School of Medicine flew him out to Detroit to tour the university’s research facilities and meet with a number of faculty.
“Wayne State University was one of the first that really saw the potential in me, despite the grades I had, the lack of funds, and everything else—they saw what I was capable of,” Pimentel said. “I was confident that not only would I receive the training in cancer research that I wanted, but that WSU would also assist me in reducing some of the inequalities that made pursuing a college degree that much more difficult."
He chose WSU and became a Dean’s Diversity Fellow through the Graduate School, which helped provide funding toward tuition and connected him to other students and faculty involved in diversity efforts. He mentored students interested in careers in cancer research through the cancer biology department. He got involved in the FocuSStem Next Gen program through the Karmanos Institute, which raises awareness in STEM education and careers to high school students in underserved schools, by giving talks and judging students’ poster presentations.
All experiences that he said made him a better scholar.
“I learned grit and how to let my outcomes speak for themselves. I took advantage of every opportunity to learn from other faculty members and, of course, my mentor about working hard and doing everything ethically right, from publishing to becoming more involved in research."
That hard work has paid off in spades.
Pimentel’s cancer research on targeting tumor necrosis factor-related apoptosis-inducing ligand, or TRAIL, resistance in triple-negative breast cancer has earned him national recognition.
He was selected for inclusion in the national 40 Under 40 in Cancer Class of 2021, granted the Profiles in Warrior Strong Award by WSU for his tenacity in the lab amidst the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic the same year, named a Janssen Scholar of Oncology in 2022, and then named one of Oakland County’s 40 under 40 and earned the Leonard N. Simons Award for Exemplary Research and Scholarly Achievement in 2023.
He shared his research at national conferences, including the 2020 National Diversity in STEM Conference conducted by the Society of Advancing Chicanos Society of Advancing Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in the Sciences and the annual National Latino Leader Conference.
Unsurprisingly, he advises students to seize any networking opportunity.
“It’s always important to get a new perspective,” he said. “In your field, you are limited to the people with whom you work, and when you disseminate your research to a diverse audience, you are not only educating them about what you do, but you are also learning from them.”
Pimentel recently successfully defended his dissertation and will soon begin a position as a postdoctoral scholar at the University of California in San Diego.
His long-term career goals include remaining in academia, leading his own cancer research lab, and eventually directing his own cancer research program.
"Not only to oversee student training but also raise cancer awareness among many underrepresented populations."
He also hopes to inspire anyone considering attending college who may be intimidated by the process, as he himself was.
“Find a role model or someone who went all the way to help you learn. Find someone who can show you and remind you that it is possible.”