For One MSK Researcher, Science Is as Mighty as the Sword

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Gabe Armijo in full fencing gear

Gabe Armijo at the 2016 Seoul Grand Prix in Korea.

Gabe Armijo, a research technician in the Sloan Kettering Institute, has quite the workload. During the week, he works in a lab led by physician-scientist Marcel van den Brink. He is researching graft-versus-host disease. This complication can occur after a stem cell or bone marrow transplant that uses donor cells. In addition, Mr. Armijo designs chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T cells to treat B cell lymphoma.

But at least six days a week, he’s also fencing at New York City’s Manhattan Fencing Center or traveling around the world to participate in fencing competitions.

“People think of The Princess Bride when I say I’m a fencer,” Mr. Armijo says.

Since he was 14, the San Diego native has been fencing competitively. Mr. Armijo is a member of USA Fencing, a national fencing organization. As part of USA Fencing requirements, he must take part in a maximum of five domestic competitions and has the option to participate in up to 12 international competitions each year. He has participated in such tournaments as the 2014 Junior World Championships, the 2015 Pan American Zonal Championships, the USA Fencing National Championships, numerous North American Cups, and many more. He has been ranked among the top five senior fencers in the United States, according to USA Fencing.

“Fencing is an individual sport. It’s mentally challenging, and win or lose, it’s entirely on you,” he says. “Like science, there are a lot of emotional highs and lows, but disciplining yourself and building a strong mental foundation can help you troubleshoot problems. It’s the mental aspect of the sport that I love.”

Becoming a Competitive Fencer

Gabe Armijo as a child wearing fencing gear

Gabe, age 10

Mr. Armijo’s introduction to fencing came at summer camp when he was 10 years old. He saw an advertisement for fencing class in the course catalog. “I really just wanted to play with swords!” he exclaims. He immediately signed up and fenced all summer.

About a year later, in 2005, Mr. Armijo started sixth grade at a new middle school. Coincidentally, one of his fencing instructors from summer camp taught at the school, so he reconnected with the coach and eventually joined the school’s fencing team. By age 13, Mr. Armijo was fencing three or four times a week.

A defining moment in Mr. Armijo’s life came while watching the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing on television. That year, the US women’s sabre team dominated the medal stand.

“It was the first time in the history of fencing that the gold, silver, and bronze medals were won by three individuals from the same country,” he recalls. He decided then that he wanted to fence competitively.

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Pursuing the Sciences

While fencing has been his passion from an early age, Mr. Armijo became interested in biology as well and recalls being taught the basics of genetics in high school.

“Learning exactly how our DNA controls things that are as mundane as our hair and eye color to something as serious as whether we are predisposed to a terminal genetic illness, that was a turning point for me,” he says. “I began to see biology not as a purely academic subject but something that has an impact on the lives that we lead.”

During college, he was particularly intrigued by a course on cancer and immunology. He was fascinated by the differences in how people’s immune systems responded to disease. And he recognized immunology as a growing field that could significantly improve cancer care.

“It was the coolest subset of biology I had encountered,” he says.

After Mr. Armijo graduated from college in May 2017, he decided to pursue his dual interests in cancer research and competitive fencing. He moved to New York and applied for a job at MSK, where he could do research and interact with patients. In New York, he could also join the Manhattan Fencing Center to train under Yury Gelman, one of New York’s best fencing coaches. He started as a research technician at SKI in August 2017.

I began to see biology not as a purely academic subject but something that has an impact on the lives that we lead.
Gabriel Armijo research technician
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Balancing Lab Work and Fencing

Since joining Dr. van den Brink’s lab, Mr. Armijo has focused on researching graft-versus-host disease. Mr. Armijo is interested in determining who is most likely to overcome the disease and how the health of the gut microbiome (a community of bacteria, viruses, fungi, and other organisms found throughout the body) contributes to someone’s survival. He also monitors experiments relating to the design of more-efficient CAR T cells to treat B cell lymphoma. In addition, he and his colleagues in the lab look at how to condition a patient’s immune system to accept a bone marrow transplant and how to stimulate the thymus, a major organ in the immune system, to regenerate and mature quickly under intense conditioning regiments.

Mr. Armijo’s favorite part about MSK is working and interacting with so many passionate and intelligent scientists and doctors.

“The researchers here exude energy and are very excited about their work,” he says. “I really appreciate that.”

Lab work can be grueling, and many of his colleagues ask how he finds the motivation to fence after work.

“Science is flexible. It allows you to set up experiments so they work around your schedule,” he says. “If I have an experiment that needs to be checked overnight, I can go to fencing practice then come back and check on my experiment at 11:30 at night.”

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Chasing Olympic Goals

Mr. Armijo’s passion for fencing grows stronger after every competition. He recently competed at the 2019 Division I/Wheelchair National Championships and April North American Cup in Salt Lake City. His next goal is to make the US Olympic fencing team for the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.

When Mr. Armijo reflects on his decade-long fencing career, he says that the most enjoyable part has been meeting fencers from around the world, overcoming language and political barriers, and forming long-lasting friendships with competitors. 

“Fencers begin competing internationally early on, so you’re exposed to different cultures at a young age,” he says. “You start to see how similar people are, regardless of their culture — everyone loves to eat, wake up early, and watch sunsets. It’s the same with science: In a lab, it doesn’t matter where everyone comes from; we’re all bound together by a common interest.”

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Comments

That was a great story on Gabe who as a child became interested in fencing and as a teen/young adult became fascinated by biology and immunology. Internal perspectives like this at MSK are a nice touch. Thanks for sharing.

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