Following the Science

By Sara Bondell - May 20, 2021

It all started with a phone call.

Dr. Patrick Hwu had accepted a job as Moffitt Cancer Center’s president and CEO. His wife and two daughters had already heard the good news, but he still had one more family to tell: his lab. So, he picked up the phone, and one by one, called the 10 researchers who worked in his lab at MD Anderson.

“I was leaving the lab when I got the call from Dr. Hwu,” Sara Leahey recalled. “He said ‘Moffitt’ and I immediately felt dread and sadness because he was leaving. Even though I was literally about to be in tears I congratulated him.”

But because of her immediate shock, Leahey missed something.

“Sara, did you hear me?” Hwu asked. “I know it may be difficult for your husband, but I would love for you to go home and talk to him about joining me.”

Yes, Hwu was leaving. But he wanted to take his research team with him to Tampa.

Dr. Patrick Hwu
Dr. Patrick Hwu, president and CEO of Moffitt Cancer Center

Leahey and her husband, Allan, are Texans through and through and had no plans to ever leave the state. She doubted a big move would be in the cards, but was elated when her husband supported his wife’s new opportunity. The decision was made.

Ana Dominguez calls herself the “first responder.” When she got her call, she gave Hwu an immediate yes.

“He said, ‘Don’t you want to think about it?’ and I told him there is nothing to think about. I really trust you, your leadership and your mission and it will be an honor to be invited,” she said.

With their children grown, Dominguez said she didn’t even need to consult her husband. She was in.

For Yunfei Wang and Soraya Zorro, the decision wasn’t as easy. Wang and his wife were planning on buying a home and their 6-year-old son had just been accepted into the best private school in Houston. Zorro came to the U.S. from Colombia for her Ph.D. and had plans to return home when she was done. But she stayed in Houston because of Hwu and their work, and was comfortable in Houston where she had multiple family members. Leaving her adopted home would be difficult.

Ultimately, Hwu’s passion for research and commitment to his team won them over.

“He is the best supervisor I have ever seen in my life,” said Wang, who says Hwu called the private school his son was applying for in Tampa to try and secure him a spot. “He cares about his lab members, he focuses on our development and wants to gives us more flexibility to develop ourselves.”

"Sometimes people get into what we do because they like science, but they don’t see that they can change lives. Dr. Hwu does."

- Soraya Zorro

“Sometimes people get into what we do because they like science, but they don’t see that they can change lives. Dr. Hwu does,” said Zorro. “He truly believes in pushing science beyond what is already known and really focuses on patients.”

After a few days of soul searching and family discussions, both Wang and Zorro decided to join the Moffitt team.

When Hwu asked Barbara Carranza to come with him, she remembered her 8-year-old self. Surrounded by cancer, she had changed her dream of being a marine biologist to a cancer researcher. When she met Hwu, he matched her passion and enthusiasm.  

“He believes that we will find the science and take it to the clinic to help people,” she said. “I feel a responsibility to not only patients, but to their families and anyone who I have ever met that battled cancer — they had a hope that we were going to work with urgency until we beat cancer.”

That responsibility is why Carranza said yes. She and the four others moved to Tampa and their new lab was up and running in February. They are excited about the innovation and opportunities for collaboration Moffitt has to offer, and hope their cellular immunotherapy research will genuinely make a difference in patients’ lives.

There were other researchers who wanted to come to Moffitt, but couldn’t due to outside circumstances like family, schooling and visas.

Sara Leahey works in Dr. Hwu's cellular immunotherapy lab.
Sara Leahey works in Dr. Hwu's cellular immunotherapy lab.

“One of Dr. Hwu’s best qualities is that he sees potential and helps us grow it, and whenever you work for him you want to continue to be around him and work for him, with him,” said Leahey.

They still consider those who stayed in Houston family, and know no matter where they are, they will always be working toward the same goal.

“We all share a little bit of Dr. Hwu,” said Carranza. “We are the Lego pieces that make up the actual face of Dr. Hwu because he has seen in us all the things we need to make the change. He says to us all the time, ‘You guys are going to change the world.’ ”

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