Forced to flee his native Africa, Steven Tuyishime now wants to create vaccines to fight malaria, a disease that kills millions there.

Steven Tuyishime’s life changed the day that the violence of his Rwandan homeland arrived at the front door of his family’s home in Kenya, where his father was posted as a diplomat. It was 1996 and, fearing that they were no longer safe, Tuyishime’s father made the difficult decision to move to the United States.

They started with little except determination. His father took a job as a laborer and studied to become a social worker, and his mother studied to be a nurse. “The transition from life in Africa to America was a tough one. I forced myself to work through feelings of isolation and concentrated on schoolwork,” recalls Tuyishime, who credits his parents’ efforts to provide better opportunities for their children as the inspiration that compels him to succeed, even today. “When I see what they went through, I can’t give myself the excuse to be lazy.”

In high school in Raleigh, North Carolina, Tuyishime found solace and inspiration in science books and nurtured growing ambitions to become a doctor. He quickly mastered English and excelled at academics, winning a coveted spot as a Meyerhoff Scholar at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC). The Meyerhoff program seeks to prepare high-achieving students who have an interest in the sciences or engineering for graduate study and careers in academia.

“When I first told adults around my neighborhood that I had received a scholarship to college, the first question they asked was, ‘For what sport?’” Tuyishime explains. “Even now, when I tell my neighbors about my plans to earn a Ph.D., they don’t know what it means.” At UMBC, Tuyishime majored in biology, and soon became fascinated by infectious diseases, specifically malaria. As a freshman, he worked with Janice Zengel, a UMBC senior research scientist who studies antibiotic resistance in the bacteria Escherichia coli. “I realized I liked the process of discovery in science,” he says. “And I thought if I got a Ph.D. and went into research, I’d have the opportunity to help even more people than I would as a doctor.”

At first, Tuyishime considered pharmacology, but research on malaria parasites in the lab of HHMI investigator Daniel Goldberg at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis changed his mind. “It was so exciting to grow the microbes in culture, and watch how they attack red blood cells,” says Tuyishime, who was there as part of HHMI’s Exceptional Research Opportunities Program (EXROP) in 2007. “After working in Goldberg’s lab, I knew microbiology was what I wanted to do.”

The following summer, Tuyishime joined David Weiner’s lab at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, where he helped test the effectiveness of DNA vaccines that could be used to treat HIV. DNA vaccines use just a portion of the viral or bacterial DNA in an effort to stimulate the immune system, a promising approach for HIV because conventional vaccines that use weakened or killed virus are neither cost-effective nor safe.

As he looks to the future, Tuyishime, now 21, says he’d like to develop DNA vaccines for malaria. He thinks they could one day supply a cheap and efficient way to eradicate the disease. “Malaria is a disease that shouldn’t exist. We need more people working on it so we can limit how many people it sickens and kills,” he says.

While he credits his mentors with inspiring him to consider graduate studies in science, he was especially encouraged when alumni of UMBC’s Meyerhoff program talked about the great research they were conducting as university professors. “Seeing somebody who looks like me involved in cutting-edge research helped plant a seed of confidence in me that I could do it too,” he says.

He now hopes he is sparking that confidence in a younger generation of budding scientists as a peer adviser for entering Meyerhoff Scholars. Tuyishime is currently applying for graduate school, and when he is a professor himself, he would like to start an after-school program that helps and encourages minority high school students who are interested in the sciences. “I recognize that there are many talented students, especially members of minority groups, who are not provided the same opportunities that I had.”

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Jim Keeley 301.215.8858