Jesse Trujillo of the Navajo Nation, the first American Indian graduate of the Cancer Biology GIDP

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Trujillo shares his commitment to education, family, faith, volunteerism and his goal to understand and conquer pancreatic cancer through the following personal account.


Ya’at’eeh. Shi ei Jesse Trujillo yinishyé. Tótsohnii nishłi, Naaneesht' ézhi Tábąąhá bashishchiin, Tábąąhá dashicheii, Naakai dashinalí. Tó Naneesdizí déé’ naashá.


(Hello, my name is Jesse Trujillo. I am Big Water, born for Water’s Edge. My maternal grandfather is Zuni Water and my paternal grandfather is Spanish. I am from Tuba City, Ariz.)


Shi’ma doo shizhe’e ei Marlinda and Roger Trujillo.


(My mother and father are Marlinda and Roger Trujillo).


My mother, who is full Navajo, was born and raised on the Navajo Reservation in a small town called Ganado, Ariz. My father, who is half Navajo and half Spanish, was raised in Colorado Springs, Colo., and Chinle, Ariz. My mother began working in Tucson in the mid-1980s and my father moved to Tucson after serving in the U.S. Army. It is there where they met before moving back to the Navajo Reservation.


I was born and raised on the Navajo Reservation. I was born in Tuba City, where I lived most of my life. I am the oldest of four and have three younger sisters, Neenah, Tammy and Kimberly.


First, I will share with you the “CliffsNotes” of my educational career and describe how I was able to get where I am today.


In high school, I was the first in my family, even the first of my cousins, to become valedictorian. I did well enough in high school that I was able to secure many scholarships, and even a Navajo Nation Scholar Athlete Award. Out of everything I earned, I am most proud of that one. I was able to obtain the prestigious Chief Manuelito Scholarship and the Gates Millennium Fellowship, both of which paved the way for me to attend Northern Arizona University and the University of Arizona.


At NAU, I gained a love for science and earned my Bachelor of Science degree in microbiology. During my junior year, I became a member of the Blue Key Honor Society, a community service organization. The combination of community service and academic performance led me to receive the prestigious Gold Axe Award, given to students who make contributions to the university through academic performance, service, leadership and participation in activities. I also began working for the Translational Genomics Research Institute at TGen North in Flagstaff. My love for science and knowledge led me to graduate school and my doctorate in cancer biology that I received from the UA in fall 2016.


Now that the pleasantries are out of the way, let’s get into how all this education really came about, starting with my parents.


There is one particular moment from my final semester at NAU that is burned in my memory and will stay there for the rest of my life. As my mom was helping me move into my apartment, she stopped me, looked me in the eye and said, “You know you’re not done yet right? You know this is not where your education ends.” I responded with a simple “I know.” At the time, I knew I was not finished with my education. However, it wasn’t until years later that I understood what my mother really meant.


You see, my mother didn’t grow up with much. She was raised by a single parent, my grandmother Bessie Blacksheep, on the Navajo Reservation in a small house with seven brothers and sisters.  When I say that she didn’t have much, I mean she had enough to get by until she was able to move out on her own. When my mother met my father, she didn’t have a bachelor’s degree. In fact, she didn’t receive a bachelor’s degree until my freshman year as an undergrad in fall 2007. My mother worked hard to get that degree, but didn’t do it until she knew that her kids could take care of themselves. While my mother went back to school, my father worked long hours for the local school district. A lot of hard work fell on my shoulders. I had to grow up fast during the last two years of high school. There was very little time to hang out with friends and do what I wanted. I was studying, playing football, leading the National Honor Society as president, doing community service, taking care of my sisters, doing everything I could to be the best son and brother I could.


My mother did the best she could to raise me and I believe she did a fine job. To this day, I instill her teachings into my life. I am up before the sun peaks over the horizon. I am running every morning to keep up with faith and good health. I am doing everything I can to keep my parents, my grandparents and my ancestors proud.


Now back to the moment my mother told me I was not done with my education. She only wanted the best for me. She wanted me to accomplish something that neither she, nor anybody else in my family (cousins, aunts, uncles, etc.) had ever been able to. She knew that I was meant for something better and meant to become somebody who will make her, and the Navajo people, proud.


A lot of life lessons were taught by my father, because he constantly was around. He was at home, at my school and on the football field. In fact, I think that it is because of my father that I am able to survive as a minority in this harsh reality of a world. He taught me that the world owes me nothing and that respect is earned, not given. Growing up, my dad raised me as an “old school” father. Sure, I was spanked. Sure, I received a “ass-whoopin” whenever I acted up. I even got yelled at for receiving B’s in high school or missing a block on the football field. It wasn’t a great feeling being yelled at on both sides of my helmet by the head football coach and my dad, who was the assistant football coach. However, this only made me strive to be great. It only made me realize that I should not settle for being average and that I can always be better. I grew up to respect my dad and I still do. I didn’t grow up resenting him. He raised me to be a respectable young adult who treats people with compassion and humility. A lot of what I learned from my dad, in my opinion, is lost in today’s teachings.


In June 2010, my paternal grandmother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. I watched for six months as cancer slowly ate away at my grandmother. I watched as cancer stole every last bit of energy and strength she had until her dying breath. It was at this point that I realized what this disease could do to a person. Although the cancer was there, that didn’t stop my grandma from laughing or smiling. She was going through hell as chemotherapy flowed through her and as secondary infections began to take hold. Yet, in those moments, I saw strength that I had never seen before in my life.


This was the first time somebody so close to me was taken by cancer. I don’t think I ever cried so much in my life as that day she was buried, all while “Amazing Grace” was strummed on a guitar in the background. All that was left were the memories and her voice calling me “shi yazhi,” meaning “my son” in Navajo. As a Christian, I believe that my grandmother’s time on earth was done, and that she was called to be with the angels. I believe that I will see her again, but that doesn’t stop me from shedding a tear every now and again.


There are times when you may be undecided about what to do with your life. Then there are life events that decide what you are meant to do. The death of my grandmother helped me make that decision. I found my home at the UA in the Cancer Biology Graduate Interdisciplinary Program in fall 2011. I continued at the UA as a Cancer Biology Training Grant Fellow, a Gates Millennium Scholar and a Sloan Fellow. I joined the lab of Dr. Jesse Martinez and began my research into colorectal cancer. Over the past five years, I spent countless hours doing my best to chip away a small piece of understanding the mechanism of what drives pancreatic cancer.


There were many times during graduate school that I felt like quitting. Grad school, as I have mentioned many times to many people, is something that will drag you down and, unless you are able to get back up, will keep you there. It also isn’t just graduate school. I think of life stress as gasoline and graduate school as the match. I am grateful that I had the support system that I did. I would not have been able to make it through graduate school without the help of my friends and family.


There will be moments when you feel that you’ve had enough. The first time I wanted to quit, I talked with the graduate coordinator, Anne Cione. Anne is like a mother to all students so when I first mentioned to her that I wanted to take my Master’s degree and run, I began to question whether I was making the right decision. I’ll never forget talking with Anne. Just like a mother, she saw I wasn’t happy and she only wanted the best for me. I laugh about it to this day, but Anne never did provide the forms I needed to quit.


Next, I remember having the talk with my PI (principal investigator) Dr. Martinez. I remember sitting in his office one morning wanting out. I remember having my head filled with shattering disappointment, not just to the program, but to my family as well. This would have been the first time that I quit anything in my life. But this is what graduate school does. Graduate school eventually takes so much out of you that it becomes difficult to continue. Anyway, as I sat in Dr. Martinez’s office, he basically told me that quitting would not be an option. He told me that I have a lot to offer to the Navajo people. I was meant to become a leader for the Native American people. He was right.


In October 2016, I became the first Navajo to earn a PhD in Cancer Biology. I gave my final oral dissertation defense on the research I worked so hard on for many years, while my friends and family sat in the audience. It was such a surreal feeling. After meeting with my committee, Dr. Martinez walked out of Kiewit Auditorium, shook my hand and said, “Congratulations Dr. Trujillo.” It’s a title that I have to get used to, but for my mother, that’s how she will introduce me for the rest of my life.


With the help of my former PI, I was able to land a post-doctoral fellowship with the Cancer Prevention and Control Program at the UA Cancer Center, with a specific interest in health disparities. Although I still am at the UA, I finally am able to do something that I love. I am taking my PhD and helping Native Americans.


Today, not only am I a post-doctoral researcher, but I also volunteer quite a bit of my free time with the Make-a-Wish Foundation as a “wish granter.” My job is to travel to the homes of “wish kids” and determine what their one true wish really is. There is no experience quite like it. You begin to notice that these kids aren’t focused on their disease. You have a kid whose only main concern is just being a kid. I have been involved on many wishes and I am thankful to be a part of these kids’ lives. I love being that ghost in the background that helps make their wish happen.


There was one instance in summer 2016 when I traveled back home to the Navajo Reservation to meet with Cori, a little girl whose disease confined her to a wheelchair. Her wish had just been granted. In fact, she and her family would be on their way to Orlando, Fla., the following day. What was her wish? All she ever had wanted was to go to Disney World. You may be thinking, why do kids always want to go to Disney World when they could have anything they want? Well, that’s just the thing…..these are kids. They grew up watching Disney movies and loving the characters and princesses. Cori’s favorite princess was Mulan. Of course it was. What I saw in Cori reflected Mulan herself. She was a fighter, she was stronger than many people knew her to be, and she loved making the impossible quite possible. This was Cori’s first time leaving Arizona. It was her first time on a plane, and it was her first time seeing the ocean. Not only did Make-a-Wish send her to Disney World, they also gave her the experience of a lifetime with tickets to Harry Potter World and Sea World. I hope that Cori met Mulan and helped her defend China from invaders. I hope that she got the wand she was destined to have from Ollivander. There is no experience quite like being a wish granter. There is a lot of work that goes into granting one child’s wish, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.


This is just a fraction of what made me the person I am today and allowed me to accomplish so much, and all before the good ol’ age of 30. I have so much to be thankful for and many people I owe a debt of gratitude: my parents, my grandparents, my friends, my faith, my PI and Anne. I will continue to do what I have been doing my whole life, stay humble, make my family and the Navajo people proud, and help those in need.






Anne Cione