To mark National Hispanic Heritage Month (Sept. 15-Oct. 15), St. Jude spotlights the contributions of our Hispanic and Latin American doctors, scientists and staff, whose dedication and expertise are critical in advancing our global mission. Here, a few of them share what inspires their work.
National heritage: Paraguayan
Associate Member, St. Jude faculty | Infectious Diseases Program Director, International Outreach
In her 15 years at St. Jude, Miguela Caniza, MD, has helped save the lives of many children with cancer—but not by treating their cancer. Rather, she has used her expertise to help hospitals around the world protect young cancer patients from potentially deadly infections.
“What’s most rewarding is being able to impact local practitioners by sharing with them different ways of using their skills and expertise, and to have friendships with them,” she says. “I learn from them, and they allow me to share what I know. These are very smart people, fantastic people to work with, with big hearts. And this is what I like—to work with these local champions.”
Angela K. Carrillo, PhD
National heritage: Peruvian
Postdoctoral fellow, laboratory of R. Kiplin Guy, PhD, Chemical Biology and Therapeutics
Angela Carrillo, PhD, came to St. Jude from her native Peru for the cutting-edge science. But from the moment she arrived, she realized there was something more that drew her. "Seeing kids every day that I know are going through so much — it's a constant reminder of why we are here," she says.
Now, she is using her skills as an organic chemist to seek new ways to fight life-threatening parasitic infections. "Malaria kills a kid in Africa every minute," she says. "And it kills children who are more vulnerable because of the social, economic and political problems in their countries."
In her eyes, combating the world's most deadly childhood disease fits perfectly with the vision of St. Jude founder Danny Thomas. "There shouldn't be any kids who die in the dawn of life," she echoes. "I think that particular idea has no limits."
Diego R. Hijano, MD
National heritage: Argentinian
Clinical fellow, Pediatric Infectious Diseases Fellowship Program
Diego Hijano, MD, admits to being a little star-struck when he interviewed for his clinical fellowship at St. Jude. "Back in Argentina, I knew about St. Jude and what they do. Having the opportunity to come and talk to researchers whose work I had been reading — I couldn't believe I was going to meet them person-to-person," he says, smiling. "Like a celebrity thing."
Hijano now shares his time between the clinic and the lab, where he is researching how the body's immune system protects children from respiratory viruses. Working as a physician-scientist is the realization of a long-held goal, and for him, St. Jude is the perfect place to do it.
"It's a great environment, with incredible resources for both clinicians and scientists," he says. "The support you get from your colleagues is overwhelming. It's like we are a small community that has a clear picture of where we want to go," he says. "Everyone is always striving to be better."
National heritage: Brazilian
Member, St. Jude faculty
When Raul Ribeiro, MD, first heard of St. Jude, he was in a hospital in Brazil, desperately looking for ways to save his young leukemia patients. “I was told that there was a place in the United States that was curing leukemia, and I didn’t believe it,” he says. Intrigued, he visited the campus and became convinced. He has since spent more than 30 years at St. Jude developing better treatments for leukemia patients around the world.
The deep support St. Jude gives to families is critical in leveling the playing field for children with cancer, according to Ribeiro. “This is the dream of any physician, to work in a place where families don’t have to pay for care,” he says. “It’s a strong message that St. Jude sends—that everybody should be treated equally.”
National heritage: Salvadorian
Assistant Member, St. Jude faculty
Could a simple plant hold a key to treating leukemia? Fatima Rivas, PhD, is betting on it. A chemist by training, she is using her skill to isolate thousands of naturally occurring compounds from medicinal plants and other materials, seeking the precious few with cancer-fighting potential. Botanists across North and South America help her in this work, sharing promising terrestrial plants from their specialized collections.
Rivas joined the St. Jude faculty five years ago, lured by the possibility of turning her fundamental laboratory discoveries into treatments for patients. “The cutting-edge resources at St. Jude offer scientists the ability to take basic science to the clinic in a short period of time,” she says. “And that’s what should drive you—the fact that your work has the potential to save a child’s life.”
National heritage: Puerto Rican
Member, St. Jude faculty | Charles B. Pratt Chair in Solid Tumor Research | Vice President, Clinical Trials Administration | Associate Director for Clinical Research, St. Jude Cancer Center
Victor M. Santana, MD, has a love of St. Jude that has stayed strong through his 32 years at the hospital, where he focuses on discovering new treatments for children with solid tumors. “One of the most gratifying experiences I have as a doctor at St. Jude is to see those patients who survive, and who come back years later to visit us,” he says.
“Those experiences demonstrate that we really are all part of a bigger family,” he adds. “We feel honored when they come back and they say, ‘Look, we’re okay, we have a family, we’re working, we have integrated into society.’ I think that’s what gives us the most strength to go on to face new challenges.”
Jessica M. Valdez, MD
National heritage: Hispanic-American
Clinical fellow, Hematology-Oncology Fellowship Program
For Jessica Valdez, MD, completing advanced medical training at St. Jude is the fulfillment of a personal mission. "My dream, my whole life, was to be a pediatric oncologist at St. Jude," she says. "It's something I always strove to achieve. Then walking around these halls on my interview day, seeing the kids everywhere — I knew that this is where I wanted to be."
Valdez splits her busy schedule between caring for young patients and researching how cancer risk can be passed down in families. The work is demanding, but rewarding — especially when she can celebrate major milestones with her patients, such as the end of cancer therapy after successful treatment.
"I love when I go home and there is confetti in my hair," she says. "Then I know it was a good day."
Anthony E. Zamora, PhD
National heritage: Mexican
Postdoctoral fellow, laboratory of Paul G. Thomas, PhD, Immunology
The inspiration to become a scientist can come from unusual places. For Anthony Zamora, PhD, it was a 1980s TV action hero. "Growing up, I didn't have a lot of exposure to science, but I was a big fan of MacGyver," he says, laughing. "I was always fascinated by his ability to manipulate his environment to come up with a solution to problems."
Zamora is now doing postdoctoral training at St. Jude as an immunologist, researching how the body defends itself against viruses and cancer. And he has found a new inspiration.
"I have a 6-year-old daughter, and the fact that the research at St. Jude is geared toward pediatric diseases is important to me," he says. "Just going down to the cafeteria and seeing the patients every day — you know what your ultimate goal is."