Cornell Chronicle Online

Search Chronicle Online

John T.G. Pena of Detroit, obtained a M.D. at Weill Cornell Medical College in medicine
What are your plans for next year; where do you see yourself in 10 years?
Next year, I will be an instructor and principal investigator in WCMC's Dyson Eye Research Institute and will start a laboratory in ophthalmology developing methods to better understand and hopefully slow the progression of the diabetes in the retina, which can lead to devastating blindness.
What Cornell memory do you treasure the most?
During my neurology clerkship at WCMC, we cared for a young woman with multiple sclerosis who was completely disabled from her disease - unable to walk, with excruciating electric pain shooting down her legs, changes in vision and extremely stiff arms and legs; and she had no health insurance. We treated her symptoms and her pain resolved, she became more mobile, and we worked hard to help her with insurance issues. This experience taught me that by having an education in medicine we treated her immediate problem, by having a research background we can look to improve current therapy, and most importantly, we have to find a way to make these therapies affordable.
Why is your research area important/why are you passionate about it?
My goal is to apply a new small RNA technology to study diabetic retinopathy, a devastating cause of blindness, in the hope of slowing down the destruction the vision. As a physician-scientist, I hope to harness the promise of biotechnology to use basic science to solve these serious medical problems. I witnessed a neighbor, who was a carpenter recently struck with blindness; he lost his profession, income and mental health. Patients need our help, and hopefully, a therapy we develop will benefit others, especially a family friend like my neighbor.
While at Cornell, what extracurricular activities or other accomplishments were important to you or you are most proud of?
I founded a 'Student Research Day' conference; was founding editor of Cornell Medical Student Research Day Journal; helped serve as a mentor and group leader for minority students who are interested in pursing medical careers; was a member of the Weill Cornell Medical College (WCMC) Student Executive Council and founded the WCMC Martial Arts Club.
Do you have an unusual background in some way that has influenced your scholarship?
Growing up a mile outside of Detroit, my father was a grocer and mother a social worker. Many of my neighborhood friends became tangled with devastating mistakes of petty crime or worse. I spent my time learning and restoring a beat-up British sports car from the 1970s, which I purchased for $50. My father and I spent years refurbishing it. My family's garage was my first lab, and my father was my first science mentor. I learned to troubleshoot and be creative to solve practical problems. Combined with my family's focus on education, excellent mentors from university and hard work, I found my direction and passion.
What does your dissertation or thesis cover?
As a Tri-Institutional M.D.-Ph.D. student, I worked at Rockefeller University (receiving a Ph.D. in the field of biomedical sciences from there in 2009) and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to help improve a technique to reliably image gene expression. We applied this simple modification to look at patient biopsy samples and to image unique genes in breast cancers, diseased cardiac samples and to differentiate dermatological carcinomas. The findings resulted in publications and a U.S. patent (and a company formed by my adviser). Our plan is to find unique genes and image them so that we can better diagnosis disease, perhaps at earlier stages.