2020 Grad Profile: Cancer Center Research Inspires A Passion

May 15, 2020

Meucci Watchman Ilunga was 16 when he left the Navajo Nation to start his undergraduate program. Now he plans to pursue a PhD.


Meucci Watchman Ilunga, a 20-year old Zairian-Diné member of the Dear Spring and Red Running into Water clans, will graduate summa cum laude from the University of Arizona with a degree in biochemistry. Ilunga is from Kinłichíí, Ariz., a small village in northern Arizona and one of the Navajo Nation’s 110 chapters.

Drawing from the experiences of his mother, a former sheepherder, and his father, an immigrant from central Africa, Ilunga had long hoped to live up to the example of service that both of his parents set for him growing up.

Ilunga graduated a year early from Window Rock High School and was admitted to UArizona when he was only 15 years old. He arrived on campus at age 16 and participated in a “Bear Down Summer Bridge Program,” allowing him to adjust to college life for a month before his full freshman year.

Throughout his undergraduate career, Ilunga developed into an avid student of biological sciences. He started doing research in the lab of Christina Laukaitis, MD, PhD, and Robert Karn, PhD, in the UArizona Cancer Center, studying protein genetics.

After his freshman year, he participated in the Partnership for Native American Cancer Prevention Program (NACP), a collaboration between the UArizona Cancer Center and Northern Arizona University.

“The experience in the NACP program almost certainly changed the course of my life,” Ilunga said. “I really think that has shaped everything I love doing and currently see myself doing in the future. I fully transitioned into wanting to do more and more research – whether it’s translational or basic. I want something with intellectual freedom to let my mind wander.” - Meucci Watchman Ilunga

It was through NACP that Ilunga also met an influential mentor, Margaret Briehl, PhD. Dr. Briehl is the co-principal investigator for NACP, and she saw firsthand Ilunga’s potential.

“From the get-go, he was so articulate, bright and well-read,” Dr. Briehl said. “He is incredibly motivated and wants to make a positive impact. It will be wonderful to see what he does in another five or 10 years because he is someone you know is going to make really meaningful contributions.”

Illunga continued his research experience in the lab of Michael D. L. Johnson, PhD, in the College of Medicine – Tucson’s Department of Immunobiology under the NIH Maximizing Access to Research Careers program. He also spent a summer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology studying computational protein techniques in the lab of Amy Keating, PhD.

In addition to his academic interests, Ilunga has been a volunteer peer mentor for Native American students at Carrillo Elementary School, a dog-walker and kitten-socializer at the Humane Society of Southern Arizona, has devoted time to the UArizona Astronomy Department’s MESCIT tutoring program, served as a departmental ambassador for the UArizona Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry (CBC), and has lead efforts within his tribe to revitalize his culture through new technologies such as machine learning and geographic information system technologies.

Ilunga has received many awards during his undergraduate degree, including the Navajo Nation’s prestigious Chief Manuelito scholarship for academic excellence, UArizona’s Wildcat Excellence Award, and three times earning the American Indian College Fund’s Full Circle scholarship. Ilunga was named by the Dean of Students Office as the recipient of the Robert Logan Nugent Award for students who exemplify the high ideals of its namesake, such as active and enthusiastic participation and service in community and university endeavors.

“I believe that service has value,” said Ilunga, who also garnered accolades this spring from the College of Science as a Galileo Circle Scholar and the CBC Outstanding Senior. “I serve because I think there is inherent value in it, not because I expect recognition in it. Receiving the Nugent Award is an extreme honor to receive such distinct recognition for my service.”

Ilunga plans to pursue a PhD in synthetic biology.