A public school graduate out of Kapolei will soon be contributing to leading-edge cancer research abroad under a prestigious Fulbright research scholarship.
Caleb Perez, a 2014 Kapolei High School valedictorian and bioengineering major at the University of Washington, is heading to Switzerland in the fall, where he will conduct a year of research at the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne, a research university near the French border.
The award is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State and the J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board, which select scholars based on academic and professional achievements and leadership potential.
During his year in Switzerland, Perez will be studying cancer immunotherapies — a treatment that uses a patient’s own immune system to fight the disease.
“That’s what I want to focus on in grad school, this whole field of cancer immunotherapies,” Perez, 22, said in an interview from Seattle. “What people have recently found out is how powerful the patient’s own immune system can be in the fight against cancer. What people are seeing now is you can do a bunch of things to re-program the immune system to attack a patient’s cancer.”
Perez said he’s always had a knack for science and got interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) during high school, after spending a summer in a research laboratory at the University of Hawaii’s John A. Burns School of Medicine.
During his junior year in high school, he scored a summer internship working on biomedical research with JABSOM faculty and graduate students. He was tasked with studying mutations in the West Nile virus genome for antiviral therapy capabilities.
“I thought it was really cool to have that kind of impact — having a medical impact through research,” he said. “When I was in high school I was always interested in STEM but I didn’t totally know what I wanted to do beyond that.”
Perez plans to pursue a doctorate degree in biological engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology following his year in Switzerland. Another competitive scholarship he recently won will help pay for that schooling.
He was chosen from among 12,000 applicants — only 15 percent of whom are selected — for a three-year National Science Foundation graduate research fellowship that comes with an annual $34,000 stipend and a $12,000 annual scholarship.
Kehau Wray, who was Perez’s English teacher at Kapolei High, said Caleb was a standout student who excelled in academics. Wray ranks Perez as being “in the Top 3, academically” of all students during her 16 years of teaching at Kapolei.
“I always knew Caleb was going to be successful,” she said. “But I can’t take any credit. He honestly came to us awesome already.”
But she and her colleagues played a big role. They pushed Perez, holding him to higher standards to ensure he was challenged in high school.
Wray recalled Perez tested at a college reading level in his junior year of high school. “I told him, ‘You know this is a game changer, right? I’m going to expect more from you,’” she recalled. “No kid wants to hear they’re going to have to do more work than their peers. I would always make him do his papers over.”
Wray said she’s kept some of his English papers to show other students what’s possible.
“I would tell him, ‘My job is to make sure that you feel confident enough to succeed, but keep you a little bit humble,’” she said.
Fulbright scholars often go on to achieve distinction in their fields. Fifty-nine Fulbright alumni have won the Nobel Prize, 82 have received Pulitzer Prizes and 37 have served as a head of state or government.
Perez said after college he wants to continue cancer research and sees himself possibly running his own research lab at a university.