Meet the STEP Team

Christopher Sistrunk, Ph.D., the step program director
Christopher Sistrunk, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor, Division of Biomarkers of Early Detection and Prevention, Division of Health Equities, Department of Population Sciences; Director, STEP Program
Christopher Sistrunk, Ph.D., is a tenure-track faculty member of the Department of Population Sciences at City of Hope, where he serves as an active member of the Division of Biomarkers of Early Detection and Prevention and the Division of Health Equities. His laboratory and outreach efforts primarily focus on developing a comprehensive research program that serves underrepresented minority communities. As a member of the research leadership team at City of Hope, Sistrunk serves as lead liaison for several clinical research projects and leaders of the communities these projects hope to serve. As a lead investigator, he currently utilizes his formal training as a molecular and cellular toxicologist to study the initiation and progression of triple-negative breast cancer. In addition, he also studies the increasing role the environment plays on genetic imprinting — specifically, projects that focus on the environmental impacts on drinking water and how underrepresented communities are affected genetically through chronic exposures. Dr. Sistrunk has been formally trained in the field of education and academic development, and he has served as a lifelong educator, trainer and mentor to the next generation of research scientists. Dr. Sistrunk currently serves as the founding director of City of Hope’s STEM Training and Education Program (STEP), which boasts a program that offers continuous STEM education programming for students that range from the third grade to postdoctoral or medical residency fellowships. In addition, he currently serves as the lead education and outreach investigator on multiple community-driven research projects. Programs Dr. Sistrunk has spearheaded have increased community trust, cancer and biomedical literacy, the number of underrepresented minorities participating in clinical trials, and the number of underrepresented minorities entering the biomedical workforce pipeline. Fun Fact: Dr. Sistrunk was once an eighth grade science teacher and middle school basketball coach.
Marisa Bowers, Ph.D., step assistant director
Marisa Bowers, Ph.D.
STEP Assistant Director
Marisa Bowers, Ph.D., graduated with a B.A. in biology from Occidental College. While in college, she interned in the neuroscience laboratory of Karen Aboody, M.D., at City of Hope, which is where she discovered a passion for research. She then attended the Irell & Manella Graduate School of Biological Sciences at City of Hope, from which she earned her Ph.D. in cancer biology, with a focus in hematopoietic stem cells and leukemia. During graduate school, she volunteered for the SEPAC Program (the program that preceded STEP) and loved working with the students. She really enjoyed introducing and explaining complex scientific concepts to students in a way they could understand. After graduating with her Ph.D. in 2014, she joined the SEPAC team as assistant program manager. Bowers helped to create and design STEP, and now serves as assistant director of the program. Fun Fact: Bowers loves turtles! She has two at home and enjoys visiting the Japanese Garden on campus to see the turtles that live there.
Danielle Guardado, STEP Program Coordinator
Danielle Guardado
STEP Program Coordinator
Danielle Guardado graduated from Whittier College with a Bachelor of Arts degree in mathematics, with a concentration in applied mathematics. She always took classes that emphasized public health and diseases, which furthered her interest into the medical field and, currently, City of Hope. She is a program coordinator for STEP, where she educates and engages with students from various grade levels in order to enhance their knowledge of the sciences and, in particular, cancer and diseases. Guardado has always had a love for both biology and mathematics, and eventually wants to be in a career that enables her to combine both. She intends to go back to school to earn her master’s degree in public health, for either biostatistics or epidemiology. However, she is starting to become very interested in mathematical oncology and would love to learn more about it. Fun Fact: She was once a collegiate athlete on the track and field team for four years at her college and held the school record for the 4x100m race.
Lluvia Nunez, STEP Intern
Lluvia Nunez
STEP Intern
Nunez is a third year biological sciences major with a minor in feminist studies at the University of California Santa Barbara. Her favorite class in college so far has been a parasitology class where she learned all about worms, vectors and infectious diseases. Although she is a biology major, she has a strong passion for women’s rights, especially women in STEM, which lead her to her feminist studies minor. Nunez became a STEP intern the summer after her first year of college, where she was given the opportunity to share her interest and passion for science! After graduating college, she plans on being in the health care field as either a physician or a physician's assistant, with a specialty in women’s health. Fun Fact: Nunez played the flute for over seven years!
Past Members
Cynthia Ulloa, Former STEP Associate Program Coordinator
Cynthia Ulloa
Former STEP Associate Program Coordinator
Cynthia Ulloa started working with City of Hope during the summer of 2017 as a summer trainee/instructor for the Hilton Science and Nutrition Summer Program. As an instructor, Ulloa taught high school students how nutrition can impact health and lead to the development of disease. She also trained students how to use basic lab equipment and challenged them through carbohydrate and cholesterol quantification assays, among others. She transitioned from her internship into a full-time associate program coordinator position after receiving her bachelor’s degree in biology in 2018 from Whittier College. Although she got to work on multiple projects, her favorite assignments were working on developing lectures and forming mentorships with her students as they worked their way in and through college. City of Hope prepared Ulloa to achieve her dream of entering the clinical research field. In 2021, she transitioned over to University of California Los Angeles and now assists patients who are enrolled in clinical studies. She has a special interest and passion for diabetes research and hopes to contribute to the field in the future. Fun fact: Ulloa loves coffee and jazz music so much that she plans to open a coffee shop with her husband one day. The name is still TBD but will likely be punny.
Ombeni Idassi
Ombeni Idassi graduated with a B.S. in biology from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University (NC A&T). Throughout his time at NC A&T, he participated in several research projects, stemming from brain cancer to working with bacteria. Furthermore, he was active in tutoring and mentoring refugee youth in Greensboro, North Carolina. Once he graduated in 2015, he joined the Victoria Seewaldt lab, collecting and processing breast cancer tissue and blood at Duke University. The lab eventually moved to City of Hope and this is where he began to work with the SEPAC Program. Through working with Sistrunk and Bowers, he gained an appreciation for science education, student engagement and creating fun activities for students to explore their own passion for learning. He led various activities focusing on disease transmission, ELISA testing and other STEM activities. He was also one of the coordinators and leaders for the Hilton Science and Nutrition Summer Program. Idassi is currently a medical student at Meharry Medical College. Fun Fact: Idassi is an avid moviegoer and fan of most movie genres! While he loves the Marvel Cinematic Universe, his favorite two favorite movies are directed by Christopher Nolan (“The Prestige” and “The Dark Knight”).
Kai Littlejohn, former step team member
Kai Littlehjohn
Former STEP Team Member
Kai Littlehjohn received her bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering at Tuskegee University. She has worked with City of Hope since February 2019 and has worked with the Sistrunk group since December of 2019, helping with the various outreach programs under STEP. Her research interests include immuno-engineering, cancer-related health disparities and increasing diversity in the field of biomedical engineering. She will be leaving City of Hope this fall to pursue a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering and hopes to use her training from the Department of Population Sciences to spearhead a similar pipeline program for minority students in the Atlanta area who lack early exposure to STEM. In addition, she plans to work internationally, designing safe and reliable processes for vaccine development. Fun fact: Littlehjohn loves nature photography!
Alan Nunez, Former City of Hope Scientist and STEP Volunteer
Alan Nunez
Former City of Hope Scientist and STEP Volunteer
Alan Nunez graduated from the University of California Santa Barbara with a B.S. in biological sciences. His coursework primarily focused on the molecular, cellular and developmental aspects of biology, and eventually led to employment at Amphastar Pharmaceuticals, where he validated the systems that bring drugs to market. After being introduced to the medical field, Nunez began working in the breast cancer research laboratory of Victoria Seewaldt, M.D., the Ruth Ziegler Chair in Population Sciences at City of Hope, where he focused on culturing adipose breast tissue. While at City of Hope, he also volunteered with STEP and helped Bowers expose students to the wonders of science. Nunez is currently pursuing a M.S. in physiology from North Carolina State University, while preparing to apply to medical school. Fun Fact: Nunez loves spicy food. You’ll often find his fridge freshly stocked with habaneros. He also maintains a healthy collection of hot sauce.
Selina Pacheco, former step intern
Selina Pacheco
Former STEP Intern
Selina Pacheco was a summer intern at City of Hope during 2019. She was part of the Department of Population Sciences and worked in Sistrunk’s lab doing really cool cancer research! In 2020, she was very fortunate to join Sistrunk’s lab once again. In spring of 2020, she earned an A.A. degree in natural sciences from Pasadena City College and, in fall of 2020, started school at the University of California Berkeley as a Regents’ and Chancellor’s Scholar! Her intended major is molecular and cell biology, with an emphasis in neurobiology, and she plans to minor in public health. Pacheco’s ultimate goal is to become a physician-scientist. She plans to get there through an M.D./Ph.D. program, which takes an average of eight years to complete. She only needs an M.D. to become a physician-scientist, but her love of research has inspired her to go for the dual program! Fun fact: Pacheco is ambidextrous. She writes with her left hand but does everything else with her right hand — including erasing a written mistake when writing with a pencil.
Susan Kane, Ph.D., Past STEP program leader
Susan Kane, Ph.D.
Professor Emeritus, Founder and Director of the San Gabriel Valley Science Education Partnership Award (SEPA) Program
Susan Kane, Ph.D., grew up in Southern California and graduated from Stanford University with a B.S. in biology. She was a biology teaching assistant and worked in two different research labs while she was in college. After taking a year off from formal education, she attended Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore for her Ph.D. in biology. Kane then went to the National Cancer Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health, for her postdoctoral fellowship, where she started her studies on drug resistance in cancer. Kane arrived at City of Hope in 1990, where she established her independent research program, focused primarily on drug resistance in breast cancer. During her time at City of Hope, she also helped establish the Irell & Manella Graduate School of Biological Sciences, served as chair of the Department of Molecular Medicine and associate director of Beckman Research Institute of City of Hope, and founded the SEPAC Program that was the precursor to STEP. Fun Fact: Kane planned to be a science writer before she discovered the joy and challenge of laboratory research, but her love of writing was always a big part of her career and success in science.
Alexandra Race, Former SEPAC Program Co-Coordinator
Alexandra Race
Former SEPAC Program Co-Coordinator
Alexandra Race is passionate about equitable science education and has devoted her career to understanding what factors may limit it in formal and informal education settings. She holds a biology degree from University of California Berkeley, a master's degree in educational media design from University of California Irvine and is currently in the fourth year of her Ph.D. program at University of California Santa Cruz. She was inspired to pursue her Ph.D. during her time working at City of Hope as a science education program coordinator in the SEPAC Program from 2014 to 2017, as she became more aware of the disparities in science education. Now, most of her time is focused on conducting research about how equitable, inquiry-driven, place-based learning is (1) understood and taken into practice by preservice teachers and (2) may impact undergraduate science student success. When she is teaching her students recognize her by her Ms. Frizzle-esque outfits. Fun Fact: Race collects rocks!
Chiara Schwindt, former step intern
Chiara Schwindt
Former STEP Intern
Chiara Schwindt is attending Whittier College and is a junior. Her goal is to graduate with a double major in biology and Spanish. She always loved taking science classes in high school and decided to focus on taking upper biology courses in college. She has worked with the City of La Mirada as a recreational aid for four years now, helping watch the kids and creating activities for each different age group during summer programs. This has helped her grow and develop new skills for working with children. What led Schwindt to City of Hope, was her interest in wanting to pursue a great opportunity that consisted of both working with kids and teaching science. She was an intern for STEP, focusing on the Saturday Science Days Program and the Hilton Science and Nutrition Summer Research Program at City of Hope. Schwindt wants to pursue a career in the medical field. She is interested in becoming a neonatal nurse specialist. Fun Fact:Schwindt received a National Science Foundation undergraduate research grant in her first year of college. She really enjoyed working with Nor 20 cancer cells, and the compound that she chose to study, Leptin, actually had great results! The compound Leptin was able to destroy some of the Nor 20 cancer cells!
Erin Seewaldt-Dietze, former STEP Intern
Erin Seewaldt-Dietze
STEP Intern
Erin Seewaldt-Dietze has been an intern for the STEP Program since February 2020. She recently graduated summa cum laude from Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. She majored in regional and comparative studies with a focus on Russia, Eastern Europe and Eurasia and minored in diplomatic studies. One of her favorite parts of college was getting to study abroad in Saint Petersburg, Russia, for a semester. She is also very interested in education, which is what brought her to STEP. This interest was sparked by participating in tutoring programs for ESL (English as a second language) students in both high school and college. While she eventually plans to go back to Washington, DC, she has been enjoying learning new things and being a part of STEP. Fun Fact: She loves baking! Her favorite dessert to make is cranberry-lime pie, which she makes every year for Thanksgiving.
Stefanie Wright-Golightly
Stefanie Wright-Golightly, M.Ed.
Administrative Program Manager, Division of Health Equities, Department of Population Sciences
After earning an Associate of Science degree in animal health technology, Stefanie Wright-Golightly, M.Ed., honed her animal nursing and practitioner skills in animal hospitals and emergency clinics for many years before transitioning into laboratory animal science environments. Because of the high demand of these skills in animal studies in biomedical research, Wright-Golightly quickly rose to leadership and training roles, as well as teaching laboratory animal certification classes to the animal care staff, and hands-on training workshops to graduate students and postdoctoral fellows in the Irell & Manella Graduate School of Biological Sciences at Beckman Research Institute of City of Hope. She also developed and implemented the Animal User Training and Post-Approval Monitoring Programs for City of Hope’s Animal Care and Use Committee. After returning to school, she earned a B.S. in organizational leadership, a master’s degree in education, learning design and technology (instructional design), and is currently a higher education leadership doctoral candidate (2021). In her current role as administrative program manager, she is responsible for providing career development and other soft skill courses for students from racially underrepresented identities who participate in City of Hope’s YES2SUCCESS programs. She is also passionate about increasing diversity in biomedical research and faculty mentor training that will equip faculty with the skills needed (including cultural competencies) to ensure effective mentoring of students from minoritized populations.
Damion Haynes, former step team member
Damion Haynes