Syracuse University Magazine

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Alexis Peña

Community-Minded Scientist

Alexis Peña’s student days as one of the University’s best and brightest may be winding down, but her shining future as a medical research scientist and humanitarian is just beginning. A native of Durham, North Carolina, Peña is a bioengineering major in the College of Engineering and Computer Science (E&CS) whose achievements exemplify the highest reaches of academic excellence. Just for starters, she is a member of the Renée Crown University Honors Program, a Donofrio Scholar, a Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation Scholar, a Ronald E. McNair Scholar, and a Remembrance Scholar. Peña has also held leadership roles in the SU chapters of the National Society of Black Engineers and the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers. “I’ve been given so many opportunities and have had great advisors and mentors throughout my time at SU, and everyone has been really helpful and supportive,” she says. “I wouldn’t want to be any place else.”

Throughout her SU studies, she has garnered national awards for her research, including her work at the Syracuse Biomaterials Institute in Professor James “Jay” Henderson’s lab. In her junior year, as a National Science Foundation Emerging Frontiers in Research and Innovation Research Experience and Mentoring Scholar, she also conducted research under the direction of biomedical and chemical engineering professor Shikha Nangia. “I’ve always had an interest in engineering and science, and in trying to help create solutions to problems that exist,” says Peña, whose senior capstone project focused on developing a noninvasive, automated method to identify and characterize cell behavior through cell motility analysis. “And I’ve always known I needed to do research to be able to understand the scientific field and to create those solutions.”

Beyond her intellectual pursuits, which include a medical anthropology minor and a passion for reading, writing, and philosophy, she has devoted herself to student and community life, serving in such roles as a resident advisor and E&CS ambassador, a tutor and mentor in local schools, a member of the University’s Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration committee, and a volunteer at Syracuse’s Rosamond Gifford Zoo and Museum of Science and Technology. Additionally, she co-hosts a women’s empowerment show on WERW, a student-run radio station at SU. “Helping and serving others is my driving force, so I really like to volunteer and do community service, especially in underrepresented areas or areas where there aren’t a lot of opportunities,” Peña says. “It’s critical to feed young minds and to encourage kids to be curious about the world and help them to have confidence in their abilities.”

Although uncertain of the specifics of the journey ahead, Peña looks forward to continuing to be a lifelong learner, and making strides toward what she refers to as her “main mission” of removing barriers to quality health care, particularly among the world’s impoverished people. “My end goal in life is to create solutions to medical problems and to hopefully have a role in better health access for many,” says Peña, who leads her class at Commencement ceremonies in May as one of two 2016 Class Marshals. “So the opportunities I’ve had at Syracuse—including being involved in research that’s primarily independent—gave me the tools I need to be a successful graduate student, and have been really profound in terms of my future.”  —Amy Speach

Photo by Steve Sartori