By Pamela Ferdinand
Close to Home
A young woman searches for answers about the disease that took her parents’ lives
By Pamela Ferdinand
Stephanie Kinkel moved across the country last year from California to pursue biology research as a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Peers and faculty members ask her, like other newcomers, the usual questions: Do her parents still live in San Diego? When are they going to visit? And will she spend the holidays with them?
Depending on the person, she either smiles and politely changes the subject or tells them the truth. The truth is that Kinkel, 27, is an orphan. But more than that, she is an aspiring cancer researcher orphaned by that very disease: Her father died in 1993 from liver cancer. Less than three years later, metastatic breast cancer took her mother’s life.
“Even as a 14-year-old, I knew these events were likely to shape my life, but I could not predict how they would shape my academic career,” wrote Kinkel in her application to MIT.
Months later in Cambridge, Mass., Kinkel reflects on her career during a break from research in the lab of biologist Tyler Jacks, the president-elect of the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR), whose team is examining the genetic events that contribute to cancer. On a campus notable for its unfashionable overachievers, she appears poised and stylish with a diamond stud in her pierced nose and silver hoop earrings dangling below short brown hair, long bangs brushed to the side. She seems warm, approachable, and well-rounded, passionate about cutting loose on the dance floor one moment and enthralled with her scientific research the next.
“I am very focused on cancer because I feel the most invested in it,” Kinkel says. “But really the problem solving ... is what drives me, because I’m not sure if it was just the emotional component that I would make it very far.”
That thoughtfulness and determination, coupled with her intellectual prowess, led to a remarkable transition for Kinkel in the years since her parents’ deaths. From a high school cheerleader who floundered scholastically and worked as a Sizzler restaurant waitress, Kinkel went on to become a research associate at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, Calif. She was accepted everywhere she applied to graduate school, including Princeton and Harvard universities.
Her upward trajectory comes as no surprise to mentor Geoffrey M. Wahl of the Salk Institute. Articulate and mature, she listens and quietly figures out ways around research problems that others consider insurmountable obstacles, he says, adding that her personal losses have given her an “incredible motivation” to succeed.