After receiving his doctorate in cancer biology at Wayne State University School of Medicine (WSUSOM) in Detroit, Stanislaus State alumnus Julio M. Pimentel officially goes by Dr. Julio M. Pimentel. A first-generation Hispanic college graduate, Pimentel hopes his success will inspire more students from the Central Valley to pursue advanced degrees in science.
Growing up in Delhi, he recalled going to doctors’ appointments and observing the cultural and linguistic barriers his family often faced.
“I had aunts and uncles who were diagnosed with cancer, and they would tell me how frustrating it was not to understand their doctor,” Pimentel said. “It was frustrating for us because translating these medical terms into Spanish is difficult and confusing.”
Those experiences motivated Pimentel to serve as a liaison between the Hispanic community and the medical field, especially in higher areas of research like cancer.
Not only does he investigate and develop new therapeutic strategies for the most aggressive cancers that strike minorities, but he also works to increase STEM diversity and recruit more students —especially from disadvantaged backgrounds — into fields such as cancer research.
“One critical observation I’ve made is that there don’t appear to be many minority professionals among scientists, especially those with doctorates in cancer research,” Pimentel said. “We live in a country where many patients are minorities, making it difficult for them to interact with doctors and scientists when someone from their community is rarely present.”
Julio Pimentel, Alumnus
He expressed his joy at being a doctor who can relate to the Hispanic patients he includes in his research but acknowledged that it is difficult.
“I wish there were others in this field with similar backgrounds to mine. We can move considerably faster in researching cancers and developing new therapeutic strategies that will serve a diverse spectrum of minorities affected by cancer.”
After graduating from Hilmar High School, he knew he wouldn’t have to go far for the degree he wanted. He came to Stan State to get his Bachelor of Science in Biological Sciences and was amazed by how much encouragement and support he received from faculty members in other majors.
“With a biological science degree, you’re not only taking biology courses but also chemistry and physics courses,” Pimentel said. “Despite the fact I was in a different major, and many chemistry and physics professors helped me with resources and recommendation letters I needed for graduate school.”
“The thing I appreciated most about Stanislaus State was the interactions with professors and staff. Students receive assistance not only from those in their majors but also from faculty in other fields of expertise on campus.
“Dr. Susan Mokhtari, the department chair for the Physics Department, was emotionally supportive during my journey and helped me realize that some graduate programs would accept or deny me,” he said. “She reminded me not to take rejection personally. She also helped me in strategizing and moving forward with what I wanted to get accomplished.”
Pimentel’s field of study focuses on breast cancer, specifically one of the four breast cancer subtypes known as triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC). Pimentel specializes in the most aggressive cancers that affect minorities, such as African Americans and Hispanics. He has a track record of making therapy-resistant cancers sensitive to therapy again.
He’s researched multiple cancers including TNBC. His research has shown that inhibiting the PD-L1 protein, which plays a critical role in the immune system, in TNBC cells made them responsive to targeted TRAIL-based therapy, which is designed to target and destroy harmful cells.
“This is encouraging because TNBC patients need targeted therapy and TRAIL is safe to administer, but it can also shed light on how we may sensitize tumor cells to our immune system (i.e., TRAIL-induced cell death) if they are resistant to it.”
Pimentel’s work and research have not gone unnoticed, and he has accomplished several milestones in the past two years. He has received two 40 under 40 Awards, which is an award program that honors outstanding executives and entrepreneurs who are age 40 and younger.
While earning his doctorate, he received the Leonard N. Simons Award for Excellence in Science and Education, making him the first Hispanic to receive the honor in cancer at Wayne State.
With these awards and accomplishments, Pimentel found himself in the spotlight often. He found the experience higlighted the challenges that have resulted from there being a limited number of Hispanic individuals working at this level.
Julio Pimentel, Alumnus
“We need more diversity in STEM, especially in cancer research. The number of minorities with doctorates is low, and it gets even lower as you specialize,” Pimentel said. “It becomes more like a bottleneck the further you go, so we need all the help we can get.”
His advice to students: “It might be overwhelming, especially cancer research, but if you work hard, study, are engaged and are proactive, you’ll be able to achieve it. It all comes down to grit.”
To further his mission of inspiring more students from underrepresented communities to earn their doctorate, Pimentel has joined the Institutional Research Academic Career Development Award (IRACDA) Program while working in his postdoctoral position at the University of California, San Diego. The program trains students to become academic professors after they’ve received their doctorate.
“There are so many great resources available to help students in becoming professors and faculty at the collegiate level. My long-term goal is to become a faculty member in California, and I am grateful to the Stan State faculty for laying a solid basis for my education.”
Pimentel added that he aspires to bring his research back to his community here in the Central Valley. He wants to bring more awareness to cancer and his research and to let members of underrepresented communities know that others like them are willing to help.
“Because there aren’t many major cancer centers or cancer programs in the Central Valley, many patients must travel out of town for treatment or updates,” he said. “Hopefully, with time, another long-term goal will be to establish a cancer research center and training program for students, and to get more people interested in and exposed to cancer research.”