May 5, 2014

Perseverance, Exploration Define Pukma's '14 College Experience

Srunphut "Jae" Pukma '14

In his four years at Emmanuel, Srunphut "Jae" Pukma '14 learned that in order to reach his highest potential, he needed to try new things, to be persistent and to bend the rules, just a little.

When Pukma arrived at the College in the fall of 2010, he was confident that he wanted to become a writer. A native of Thailand, he was enamored with American literature and the work of such writers as Nathaniel Hawthorne. He took several English and literature courses, and though he eventually leaned toward his love of science, he considers his language background to be advantageous when writing on any subject.

"People don't regard an English education as an important component of science," he said, "but just being able to write has helped me in so many ways."

In the spring of 2013, the biology major flew under the radar and enrolled in Vice President of Academic Affairs and Professor of Biology Joyce De Leo's senior seminar. While in the class, Pukma remained silent about his junior status, absorbing the lessons from a professor who would become his greatest influence.

"Dr. De Leo brought in scientists from Merck [Research Laboratories] to talk about drug discoveries and developments," Pukma said. "It was so beneficial to hear from professionals working in the field."

Pukma's experience in the seminar motivated him to apply for a position as a pediatric oncology intern in Dr. Rani George's research lab at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute (DFCI). A major affiliate of Harvard Medical School (HMI), DFCI typically gives internships exclusively to HMI students, but Pukma was determined to earn his place.  

"I brought Dr. George my senior seminar project and then I e-mailed her so many times. I think she was a little impressed that I wouldn't give up," he said.

Dr. George's lab focuses on "translational research," or research that can be taken from the lab and translated into practical applications, such as drugs, devices and treatment options for patients. Specifically, Pukma's work at DCFI was centered on neuroblastoma, a rare type of cancer that occurs mostly in infants and children. The research he did contributed to his senior project for distinction in the field.

"Being able to intern this year at Dana-Farber shows the potential of Emmanuel students," Pukma said. "It demonstrates what we are capable of."

Pukma credits the College's small class sizes, dedicated faculty and location in the Longwood Medical and Academic Area as primary reasons an Emmanuel education is so valuable.

"I don't think I would have had these same opportunities and this same education at a larger school."

It was an education that almost didn't happen. After Pukma graduated from Arlington High School in 2010, he found himself at Emmanuel's summer orientation, where his nerves almost got the best of him.

"I was sitting by myself, wondering what I was doing there," he said. "I didn't know anyone and I was completely overwhelmed."

As he contemplated leaving before the program even started, orientation leader Gina D'Amico '11 sat down next to him and asked him a few questions about himself.

"I immediately felt welcomed and like part of the Emmanuel community," he said. "And I've felt that way ever since. I won't ever forget that."

In turn, Pukma reached out to someone else that needed a friend. During his freshman year, he connected with the Big Brothers Big Sisters program and was matched with a ninth-grader from Roxbury, Mass. Over the past four years, Pukma has tutored him in his high school courses and helped him get his driver's license. He also tried to instill the importance of education and of staying grounded.

"I told him, 'The only thing someone can never take away from you is what is in your mind,'" Pukma said. "And to never be condescending or rude to anyone, to always remain humble."

In the coming weeks, Pukma and his "little brother" will share in the graduation experience-and both have bright futures ahead of them. In the fall, Pukma will enter an eight-year program at Tufts University School of Medicine, which includes a one-year Master of Public Health program, followed by a seven-year dual M.D./Ph.D. medical science training program.

As for his mentee, the young man is on his way to Harvard in September. Though the high school senior initially expressed doubts on his ability to get in, Pukma offered the same advice that has guided him through his college career.

"I said, 'You'll never know until you try.'"