Looking to the Future of Cancer Treatment
Senior and chemistry major Roberto De Gregorio
In 2019, Dyker Heights native Roberto De Gregorio began working in Professor Maria Contel’s organometallic cancer research lab. His work there sparked an interest in cancer treatment and chemistry’s role in medicine. Graduating with honors this spring, De Gregorio will receive a B.A. in chemistry and a B.A. in philosophy honors. He is a member of Phi Beta Kappa and was awarded the Stanley Malinovich Memorial Award for Excellence in Philosophy and the Lila Lustig Science Scholarship in Chemistry. He also received an external fellowship during the summer of 2021 to work at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and will be employed there as a research technician after graduation.
Chemistry and philosophy are an interesting combination. What made you decide to major in both?
My first encounter with chemistry was in my senior year of high school. It was a required class and I delayed taking it as much as I could because I had heard from my classmates how challenging it was. I was surprised by how much the subject interested me and I left that intro class with a lot of unanswered questions about the science that I wanted to explore further. I found the novel Nausea by existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre in my father’s small library got me interested in philosophy. At first, I found it difficult to read, so I put it down and revisited it a year later, and read it cover to cover. I became so enamored with the ideas and characters in that book, that I began to take courses in philosophy.
So, studying philosophy became important to you?
I have always thought studying philosophy is intrinsically beneficial, that it could make me a better citizen, expand my mindset, and allow me to ask better questions.
How did you get to work in Professor Maria Contel’s lab?
In my sophomore year I began looking for research opportunities without truly knowing what research entailed. I began cold emailing and got into contact with Professor Contel. Much to my surprise, she agreed to let me join her lab despite my lack of research experience. In the three years that I’ve been a part of her lab I have worked with her and a team of researchers designing metal-based chemotherapeutics. The project that I am working on is gold-based antibody drug conjugates. To summarize, antibodies are good at targeting and chemotherapeutics are good at eliciting cellular death. Alone, chemotherapeutics can differentiate between healthy and malignant cells. Combining antibodies and chemotherapeutics into one molecule, we can harvest the selectivity of antibodies while maintaining toxicity in order to achieve combinational therapy. The work is in my honors thesis; I expect to publish my research when the data is complete.
You completed a fellowship at the renowned Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.
Yes, but before Sloan Kettering, Professor Contel recommended I apply to a summer program funded by the Department of Energy and the American Chemical Society focused on introducing nuclear and radio chemistry concepts to undergraduate students in hopes that they will pursue those disciplines in graduate programs. I loved the medical application of nuclear chemistry I observed there. It was a pivotal experience in my education because I left the program with a stronger idea of what sector of science I wanted to pursue, with specific interest in oncology.
After that experience, I applied to the Molecular Imaging Summer Program at Memorial Sloan Kettering in summer 2021 and was accepted. I was blown away there by the innovative new ways researchers and doctors are using radioactivity for therapy and diagnosis purposes.
You won the Lila Lustig Science Scholarship in Chemistry and the Stanley Malinovich Memorial Award for Excellence in Philosophy.
Yes, those awards and others affirmed that I am doing the right thing in pursuing what I’m passionate about. They have supported me financially and served as a motivator that I am on the right track. As a high school student, I wasn’t as invested in my education and never excelled academically or won any awards and I believe it was because I was confined to subjects I didn’t enjoy. When I got to college and began studying what I liked, the grades followed. I studied hard, not so much to get an A, as to understand and apply what was being taught.
What is next for you?
After graduation, I have a position lined up at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center as a research technician in the lab I previously worked in. While there, I would like to enroll in a graduate program part-time. After my two years at the cancer center, I will be applying to a dual degree M.D.-Ph.D. program, which would allow me to earn both degrees in a biomedical field at the same time. Ultimately, I hope to work on imaging and therapeutics for various cancers. When I’m not working or in class, I enjoy playing chess, taking care of my plants, and reading.