For UCSF graduate, DACA gives a chance to fight cancer

Angel Ku, PhD, has no memory of not being an American. Born in Mexico, the 29-year-old spent all but the first 18 months of his life in America. But because he’s undocumented, going to college and graduate school was a struggle.

Today, Ku is a full-time cancer researcher at a Bay Area oncology company, having earned this spring a PhD in Pharmaceutical Sciences and Pharmacogenomics (PSPG) from UC San Francisco. His doctoral thesis covered possible treatments for notoriously hard-to-treat tumors with a particular mutation in the KRAS gene.

The path to an oncology lab in Northern California was no easy journey, but Ku never gave up. His determination to succeed, along with assistance from organizations that guide immigrants to college, and his mentors at UCSF, helped him achieve his dream.

From fear to graduate

Ku’s graduate project, which focused on identifying possible next-generation cancer therapies, was a “great mix of computational and experimental work,” according to his faculty advisor, Sourav Bandyopadhyay, PhD, a faculty member in the Department of Bioengineering and Therapeutic Sciences (BTS), a joint department of the UCSF Schools of Pharmacy and Medicine.

Ku’s findings move us all closer to personalized treatments for cancer. But having the opportunity to research new cancer therapies was never a guarantee for Ku.

It wasn’t until middle school, during a college preparation course, that Ku discovered he was undocumented. It was a real blow. He had good grades and an interest in science, and he wanted to further his education. Even though he knew his immigration status would make going to college difficult, Ku remained committed to his dream.

In the months after the 9/11 al-Qaeda terrorist attacks on the United States, Ku noticed a change in the political climate when it came to immigrants. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security was established soon after the attack, and there were surges in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids.

There were days Ku was afraid to go to school because ICE agents were detaining people near the bus depot he passed on his way to class.

With good grades and test scores, Ku was able to enroll as an undergraduate at San Francisco State University (SFSU). Working with two groups, 10,000 Degrees and Immigrants Rising, which provide assistance to undocumented students, Ku even got a $5,000 scholarship.

A home at UCSF

While studying at SFSU, Ku met Nadav Ahituv, PhD, a BTS department faculty member at UCSF who specializes in studying how genetic factors drive normal development, like the growth of limbs, as well as the development of disease.

Ku took a job in Ahituv’s lab, and Ahituv eventually convinced Ku to give graduate school a shot. Ku was ultimately accepted into UCSF’s PSPG PhD degree program, which is administered by the School of Pharmacy.

In 2012, the year Ku graduated from SFSU, President Barack Obama implemented the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. DACA allowed children who had been brought by their parents to the U.S. illegally to apply to stay in the country for two-year blocks and obtain work permits.

DACA meant that graduate school was within reach for Ku.

Ku in his lab coat with four other lab members.

Angel Ku, PhD, second from left, with his lab mates.

Ahituv also introduced Ku to fellow BTS department faculty member Deanna Kroetz, PhD, who directs the PSPG program.

“Angel’s research findings will inform better treatments for cancer patients toward the goal of more personalized medicine,” said Kroetz.

“The PSPG graduate program is fully committed to training a diverse group of scientists and appreciates the unique experiences they bring to the scientific process,” she said. “We’ll continue to support DACA students and other underrepresented students, like Angel, who bring new perspectives into our field and who have overcome tremendous obstacles to reach their goals.”

“Angel's story is an inspiration to all those toiling in adversity, and he opened up my eyes to the difficulties of those with undocumented and disadvantaged backgrounds,” Bandyopadhyay said. “He showed me how science can be a unifying force in bringing people together.”

Ku also met Esteban Burchard, MD, MPH, another BTS faculty member, who became a valued mentor and friend.

There was one Saturday when Ku biked to the lab to get in some extra work. With his lab mates, surrounded by robotics, pipettes, freezers humming and centrifuges, something clicked. “I remember looking around and thinking, ‘Wow, I’m finally here. I can do science and play with these cool machines around all these amazing people,’” Ku said.

Support at UCSF

DACA was suspended under President Donald Trump, but a federal court order allows people who have already entered the program to continue to apply every two years. Next July, the U.S. Supreme Court is set to rule on whether the Trump administration can end the program. It’s painful for Ku to see the door close for other students in his position, but he still thinks a national solution to the problem is possible.

UCSF welcomes applications from all prospective students, regardless of their immigration status. DACA may be in legal limbo, but University of California President Janet Napolitano has promised to continue to protect these students.

Napolitano has publicly supported the American Dream and Promise Act of 2019, which was passed by the U.S. House of Representatives and would give permanent status to undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as minors, and her administration sued the Trump administration over the repeal of the law.

Ku’s advice for students in his situation is to look for support on campus. UCSF Graduate and Professional Dream Advocates was one campus group Ku turned to. He also recommends having candid conversations with program directors and coordinators. “They’re there to support you,” he said. “Find mentors who will be your champions no matter what.”

The University of California Immigrant Legal Services Center, operating out of the UC Davis School of Law, gives free legal advice to students. And UCSF Undocumented Student Support Services offers a virtual resource for the UCSF community.

Ku’s future is brighter than ever. After graduating, he took a job at a Bay Area company focusing on using protons for radiation therapy. The hope is that using protons to bombard cancer instead of electrons will allow oncologists to limit the particle’s highest energy to inside a tumor, sparing healthy tissue and immune cells to boost the therapeutic effects of the therapy.

Despite the uncertain future of DACA, Ku continues to advocate for expanding the law. He keeps telling his story, hopeful that times will change and others will get the chance to walk the same path he did.


School of Pharmacy, Department of Bioengineering and Therapeutic Sciences, PharmD Degree Program, QBC, PSPG

About the School: The UCSF School of Pharmacy aims to solve the most pressing health care problems and strives to ensure that each patient receives the safest, most effective treatments. Our discoveries seed the development of novel therapies, and our researchers consistently lead the nation in NIH funding. The School’s doctor of pharmacy (PharmD) degree program, with its unique emphasis on scientific thinking, prepares students to be critical thinkers and leaders in their field.