By Ann Baker
She’s been called many things: trailblazer, dynamo, even "Mother Moffitt."
Julie Djeu, PhD, took on the title of first research scientist at the fledgling Moffitt Cancer Center back in 1986 in part because she loves a challenge.
"Everyone I knew then told me it was the most foolish thing to think that we could take a little hospital and build a cancer center out of it,” said Djeu. "I just smiled and said, ‘let me see about that."
She was instrumental in assembling Moffitt’s now renowned research programs, a key to its rapid recognition by the National Cancer Institute as a Comprehensive Cancer Center. Moffitt is still the only such center based in the state of Florida.
The diminutive Dr. Djeu packs a wealth of scientific passion. A respected immunology researcher at the National Cancer Institute before coming to Moffitt, she helped describe the role of NK (natural killer) cells in the battle against cancer. She became the Founding Leader of Moffitt’s Immunology Program, performing pioneering work with interferon, a class of proteins that also triggers the immune system. Through the years, she published more than 200 papers and secured over 20 grants as a principal or co-investigator.
"My research is always important to me," she said. "But inspiring others is just as important."
In 2013, Djeu was named Moffitt’s first Associate Center Director for Education and Training, overseeing all education and training activities for the next generation of cancer researchers. Though Moffitt already trains more students in oncology than all other Florida institutions, Djeu helped to expand the Cancer Biology PhD Program to include three new majors in Immunotherapy, Mathematical Oncology and Chemical Biology. She helped to establish innovative internships in Government Relations, Business and Technology, Cell Therapies and Molecular Diagnostics. She has championed Moffitt educational experiences for hundreds of undergraduate and high school students, and proudly keeps in touch with graduates who are now leading research efforts nationwide.
"I tell all my students when they leave – remember, you are our ambassadors," she added. "When people ask, tell them ‘Moffitt inspired me.’"
It’s a legacy that will be hard to follow when Djeu retires in late March of 2018.