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School of Medicine Columbia

Yvon Woappi

From Cameroon to Harvard

By: Yvon Woappi

My curiosity in life science ignited during my youth in Cameroon. I would often go to local parks with my father to identify various insects and mollusks. This curiosity magnified after my family immigrated to Pennsylvania where I received passionate lessons from an ardent AP biology teacher. It was fascinating to know that microscopic species could synthesize such complex compounds. From these early experiences, my decision to study biology in college was easily made.

Nevertheless, this passion was challenged when my father was diagnosed with terminal cancer during my freshman year in college. As various chemotherapies continuously failed to heal him, I began to grasp the importance of biomedical research in improving treatment options for patients and inspiring hope for patients’ families. From then on, my interest in cancer research was born.

During my sophomore year in college, I became involved in microbial-derived therapeutics research on campus and was able to characterize several novel strains of antibiotic-producing microorganisms. My undergraduate findings received the Carol A. Baker Undergraduate Student Research Award and later the first-place prize in Biomedical Research at the Penn-York Sigma Xi Conference.

After graduating from the University of Pittsburgh, I was admitted into the NIH Post Baccalaureate Research Education Program at the University of South Carolina, which gave me tremendous confidence to pursue doctoral studies in Biomedical Sciences. As a PhD student in the laboratory of Professor Lucia Pirisi-Creek at the University of South Carolina School of Medicine, I studied the role of epidermal stem cells on HPV16-mediated cell transformation and was awarded the Grace Jordan McFadden Professors Pre-doctoral Fellowship in recognition of this work.

Following my Ph.D. in 2016, I went on to pursue a postdoctoral fellowship in cutaneous oncology at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital. My current research focuses on developing novel CRISPR-based tools to study skin tumor initiation and maintenance. While at Harvard, I am currently involved in the NIH CURE Program at the Dana-Farber/Harvard Cancer Center, helping to mentor young undergraduate students aspiring for a career in sciences just as I once was.

I was also recently admitted into Harvard Medical School Scholars in Translational and Academic Research Program (HMS STAR), where I am being trained to be an effective mentor and trailblazer in my field of research. I hope to one day lead a research team of my own and to provide research opportunities to many bright aspiring scientists, especially those from underserved communities, just as the PREP program at Carolina once did for me.

Challenge the conventional. Create the exceptional. No Limits.