Glam Grads Q&A: Nika Soon-Shiong on working at the intersection of international studies, creative writing

Nika Soon-Shiong B.A. ’15 M.A. ’16 is a passionate storyteller who led a “photovoice” project on youth unemployment in Nyanga, Cape Town and Gaborone, Botswana as part of her African Studies research. Through her photovoice project, Soon-Shiong sought to help members of the communities she visited be heard by giving them cameras and asking them to document their experiences. In this edition of Glam Grads, The Daily talked with Soon-Shiong about her project and her other work at the intersection of her two passions, international studies and creative writing.

The Stanford Daily (TSD): Can you tell me about yourself and your journey to Stanford?

Nika Soon-Shiong (NS): I grew up in LA and was always interested in international development. I did Model United Nations in high school, and I knew that coming to Stanford, I wanted to explore creative writing and how that could intertwine with international studies.

TSD: What about international studies and writing do you find interesting?

NS: I have always been passionate about telling stories and advocating for others who do not have the opportunity to tell their own stories. I have always been trying to marry those two interests, whether that has meant delving into journalism or highlighting views or parts of the world that need to be highlighted. And that can mean amplifying voices on the global stage that need to be amplified … in order to increase situations of justice on a national scale.

TSD: How did you realize you wanted to combine your interests in international studies and writing?

NS: I used to think of my interest in writing and interest in international studies as two interests that lived in silence. But when I read Samantha Power’s “Problems from Hell,” that was a big moment for me where I just put the book down and realized that her interest in journalism and storytelling had very much informed her in her actions as the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. And that was a crystallizing moment for me in terms of how I could marry my two interests.

TSD: What have you been doing so far to pursue your passions?

NS: I did a photovoice project the summer of my junior and senior year. Basically, it is a community-based participatory research method where you give members of a community a camera and ask them to document and explore their experience with a particular issue.

I was in Nyanga, a township outside of Cape Town, when I made a photovoice project that explored unemployment amongst township youth. I asked them on one hand, to capture the aspects of the community that inspire them, and on the other hand, [to capture] the aspects of the community that make it hard to find a job.

The photovoice project really grew out of my feeling and my sense that the best way I could serve the beneficiaries of the life skills and job training program in Nyanga was to listen, and to create spaces for them to share their stories in public and private settings. It wasn’t an exhibition that showcased all that is negative in Nyanga, but rather something that tried to do justice to the beauty as well — and create a more well rounded picture of the participants’ experiences.

Then, I continued this project in Gaborone, Botswana last summer at the Baylor Pediatric Aids Initiative.

TSD: What are some prior jobs you’ve had related to your interests?

NS: I was an intern at TeachAIDS, a nonprofit Piya Sorcar runs out of Palo Alto. I got to do some writing for grants, awards application writing, and the company won one of the awards that I wrote the application for, which was really exciting for me. I got to do some blog writing for them which was really fantastic. I got to explore the work they were doing via writing their blog, and reading their blog, over and over again and making notes and edits wherever I saw necessary. And it is such a small company, so I also got to see how hectic it can be sometimes.

TSD: What is an interesting fact about yourself?

NS: I am learning to speak five languages: English, Spanish, Italian, Arabic and Xhosa.

TSD: What are your future plans?

NS: In terms of future plans, I want a career where I can use my writing, research and analysis skills to contribute to the international development space. As of now, I’m not sure if this will be in an academic, government or nonprofit setting.


Contact Meghna Gaddam at meghna.gaddam ‘at’

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Researchers develop ‘chemotherapy missiles’ to solely target cancer cells

Jennifer Cochran, associate professor of bioengineering, has led development of a new way to target cancer cells without damaging healthy cells. Cochran and her coauthors’ research on “guided chemotherapy missiles” appeared in June issues of Molecular Cancer Therapeutics and Angewandte Chemie.

“Chemotherapy is extremely toxic since it indiscriminately kills healthy cells in addition to tumor cells,” Cochran said. “And for that reason we and others are motivated to develop ways to more selectively target chemotherapy to tumors to make it safer and more effective.”The idea is to use an engineered protein that links to molecular antennae on the surface of a cancer cell. These antennae can differentiate healthy tissue from tumor tissue and become a conduit to directly deliver chemotherapy into the tumor cells.

Chemotherapy’s toxic nature gives it many limitations; figuring out the right dosage without harming healthy tissue can be quite challenging. The engineered protein could potentially decrease these limitations with more potent chemotherapy directly administered to the tumor. The goal is increased safety for the patient.

Cochran and her team’s research on the chemotherapy missiles built on their previous work creating a tumor-targeting protein that functioned as a “molecular flashlight” to image tumors. The engineered protein used a knot-like protein called knottin that has the capacity to detect cancer cells.

“Once we saw the tumors lighting up in these experiments, it inspired us to use the same engineered protein as a vehicle to deliver drugs to tumors,” Cochran said.

Academic and industrial work has used a similar approach with large proteins called antibodies. But smaller engineered proteins such as knottin penetrate the tumor wall more easily. Tumors are dense, so smaller proteins are better at wiggling inside them.

Cochran has always had a passion for the proteins fundamental to her chemotherapy missiles. She started studying proteins with basic science and then moved on to manipulating them through design and engineering methods. Her protein fascination — along with a desire to cure cancer and help save lives — drove her latest work.

According to Cochran, the new approach is promising so far. Although the technology has been successfully tested in animals and cells in a dish, it is not ready for human use yet.

“We need to continue to test in models for therapeutic efficiency and potency before getting it to patients,” Cochran explained. “More trials need to take place, and manufacturing is a big part of the picture as well. It will cost a lot and take a lot more time, but getting it to the public is our ultimate goal.”

– published on the Stanford Daily