Fil-Am biomedical student  Benjamin Nittayo will go on to UC Davis in the fall for a PhD

I was with him in the last moments, and I told him, ‘I love you,’ but at that point I don’t know exactly what he understood, but then he told me that he loved me, too, and I think that was the last coherent thing he told me.

It’s not easy to comprehend the unexpected trials and tribulations life throws at us.

Grief through the loss of a loved one is one of the most difficult, confusing emotions to deal with and understand, and it takes work to process certain experiences and to, somehow, make good out of tragedy.

Filipino-American Benjamin Nittayo, a recent graduate from Cal State Los Angeles, took a tragedy and decided to serve the world in a magnificent, selfless way. After his father passed away from acute myeloid leukemia, Nittayo, 24, was motivated to pursue cancer research to help develop vaccines, therapies and treatments for cancer patients.

“Once I had that experience, I knew I wanted to find ways to help advance cancer research and medical research in general,” Nittayo shared with the Asian Journal in a recent interview.

His path toward a career in health care began at Pasadena Community College (PCC). As a student, he clocked in more than 700 volunteer hours at hospitals like the Adventist Health Glendale and the Methodist Hospital of Southern California in Arcadia, shadowing doctors and having plenty of facetime with patients undergoing illnesses that ranged from benign to acute.

Nittayo during the commencement ceremony at Cal State LA on Thursday, May 24. (Photo by Anibal Ortiz/Cal State LA)

Although he appreciated the work and learned a lot from volunteering, the experience of working long hours and its physical and mental toll discouraged him from a career as a clinician, and it wasn’t until he began research in college that his ambition to work in biomedical research really came into focus.

“It took a big toll on me. I’d be at the hospital from four to eight hours and the day would just drag,” Nittayo said. “I was always looking for some other alternative, and then I started doing research and I said maybe I can make a career out of this, and a lot of people do.”

It was around the time that he transferred to Cal State LA that his father was diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS) and, eventually, got a bone marrow transplant which was rejected by his body, resulting in graft versus host disease (GvHD). Just as he was about to undergo a second bone marrow transplant, he caught a flu virus in the winter of 2015 that turned the MDS into “full-blown leukemia.”

The doctors told the Nittayo family that he had six more months, but passed away about a month later. During his father’s last few weeks, Nittayo spent as much time as he could with his father, dropping out of school to accompany him while he had blood infusions.

“We both knew, in a way, that this wasn’t going to end well but we just talked about whatever was on our mind,” Nittayo said. “We never really acknowledged it, but I think he knew in his mind that it wasn’t going to end well. So we just talked, and one thing he really wanted me to do was to go back to school.”

Nittayo recalled, “I was with him in the last moments, and I told him, ‘I love you,’ but at that point I don’t know exactly what he understood, but then he told me that he loved me, too, and I think that was the last coherent thing he told me.”

Building on his father’s request, Nittayo went back to school and, this past May, graduated from Cal State LA  with a Bachelor of Science in Biology with a minor in Microbiology. But Nittayo didn’t just finish school doing the bare minimum.

In addition to amassing hours of volunteering, Nittayo was a research intern at the City of Hope in the Department of Experimental Therapeutics through the competitive Eugene and Ruth Roberts Summer Student Academy. He also received two research fellowships through Minority Opportunities in Research (MORE) programs and also served as vice president for the Cal State LA Cancer Research and Awareness Society.

“Ben is an inspiration to me, the members of my research lab group, and many others here at Cal State LA,” Nathan J. Lanning, a professor whose lab Nittayo worked in, said in a Cal State LA newsletter.

This fall, Nittayo will begin the journey to a Ph.D. at UC Davis, which awarded him the Floyd and Mary Schwall Fellowship in Medical Research to fund his studies.

“[My dad] told me, ‘You know you gotta do something that you really want to do,’ so I chose to do this,” Nittayo said, acknowledging that his experience with his father solidified his aspirations in medical research. “[My dad] taught me that to always work hard and to complete every job and don’t leave until you’re finished. That’s something he’s always told me, and that’s something I always try to do.”

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