Early Grad Applies Skills as Cancer Researcher

From February 1, 2018 edition of the Navajo Times: https://navajotimes.com/ae/people/early-grad-applies-skills-cancer-researcher/.

WINDOW ROCK

Picture of Meucci Ilunga presenting a scientific poster of his work

Meucci Ilunga, a Navajo research student at the University of Arizona Cancer Center, explains details of a poster for a study on genomes in mice to another Navajo student

A Navajo student graduated early from Window Rock High School, but college brought a whole new challenge and pitted his skills against a deadly scourge of his people – cancer.

“It does hit me hard, because I know that this is a disease among many others Native Americans are disproportionately affected by … and so for me it really is an emotional experience, because I know that whatever I do here could have direct implications for my people,” said Meucci Ilunga, who graduated a year early in 2016. “That is inspiring for me,” he said, “but it also gives me a little bit of fear.”

Ilunga, son of a Congolese father and a Navajo mother, grew up in Kinlichee, Arizona. He kept a straight 4.0 throughout middle school and into high school, where he graduated a year early after an appeal to the governing board of the Window Rock Unified School District. By the time he requested early graduation, he had 26 credits — four more than the 22 required to graduate, had already been accepted at 11 academic institutions, and had been dual-enrolled at Diné College since the second semester of 2015.

He took that level of academic success and applied it at the University of Arizona, where he sought bachelor’s degrees in both applied mathematics and biochemistry, with a minor in Spanish. He set out to maintain the same level of academic excellence, but college showed the stripes of a different animal than his previous academic experience.

“I walked into my first exam, confident in my abilities and confident in what my results had been in high school, and that was the first exam I had ever failed,” he said. “It was horrible.”

He had to make a change. In his previous education, he had found that classroom time had provided enought to familiarize himself with test material. In his first failure of an exam, he learned that he had to depend less on the teacher in the classroom and more on himself in his study time and even free time.

He would change his behavior as a result, but first he would change his attitude toward school.

“Everything rests on nobody’s shoulders but my own,” Ilunga said.

To shift his behavior, he would consider what he read in the class text and then explore a subject on more academic parts of YouTube, listed to a TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) Talk, or even buy additional textbooks to explore the subject.

“Reading through those different perspectives for a topic gave me this really great intuition into what was really happening,”he said. “Diversifying textbooks, diversifying where you’re getting your information, and really understanding the fact that you are doing this for yourself, you’re bringing this knowledge to yourself, and that’s really what changed between the first exam and where I’m at today.”

Read the remainder of the article here: Early grad applies skills as cancer researcher, by Christopher S. Pineo, Navajo Times.