Profiles in Diversity: Leticia Toledo-Sherman ’87

Profiles in Diversity: Leticia Toledo-Sherman ’87

Dr. Leticia Toledo-Sherman’s scientific accomplishments in medical research seem to go on without end. After obtaining her Ph.D. in Organic Chemistry from The State University of New York at Stony Brook, she did postdoctoral research as a National Institute of Health postdoctoral fellow at The Massachusetts Institute of Technology and at The Scripps Research Institute with world renowned Chemistry Professor Julius Rebek, Jr. She went on to be employee No. 1 at Kinetix Pharmaceuticals, a biopharmaceutical startup company founded by celebrated scientist Nick Lydon. There Toledo-Sherman worked on structure-based design of anti-cancer drugs that targeted protein kinases, a type of protein that drive cancer cell growth, and a drug discovery avenue that has become the forefront in the fight against cancer. She later went on to become the Executive Director of Chemistry at LymphoSign Inc. and Director of Chemical Proteomics at MDS Proteomics/Protana. Since 2005, she has been Director of Computer-Aided Drug Design & Medicinal Chemistry at the CHDI Foundation, a nonprofit biomedical research organization focused exclusively on finding therapeutics for Huntington’s disease.

It is quite a resume, and Toledo-Sherman is quick to attribute her success to NJCU—or, rather, Jersey City State College, the school’s name when she enrolled in 1982.

“JCSC prepared me for my career goals,” she says. “It provided me with wonderful mentors. It pointed me to where I am today.”

A native a Cuba and the daughter of a political prisoner, Toledo-Sherman and her family fled to the U.S. in 1980. She was 15 years old and did not speak English.

“But my disposition has always been to just go for things. That’s the way I approached the language problem. I just thought, ‘I need to be understood. I have to learn English. This is what I have to do.’”

She avoided the remedial bilingual programs at her high school and opted for full immersion, sitting in classes with the English speaking kids and working her tail off to both understand and be understood. It was a difficult strategy, but an effective one; she soon became fluent.

Two years later, as a beneficiary of the Opportunity Scholarship Program, she became a freshman Chemistry major at Jersey City State College.

Her choice to attend JCSC wasn’t much of a choice, really. “A lot of the immigrant students were funneled to JCSC back then. I don’t think my high school counselors had any mindful thoughts about what was best for me. They just sent the immigrant students to places that were close.”

Her path to higher education may not have been carefully thought out, but the paring of Toledo-Sherman and JCSC was serendipitous nevertheless.

“JCSC was such a supportive and encouraging place. My chemistry professor, Dr. Taddeus Raynes became my mentor,” she says. “He nominated me for two awards--The American Chemical Society (ACS) Student Awards and the American Institute of Chemists Student Award—and I won them both.”

And, at the awards ceremony, Toledo-Sherman got to hear speeches from nationally known chemists—her heroes—describe how medicines are made. “In that moment, I knew this was my path. This was what I wanted to do. I always wanted to pursue science, but this was the light bulb moment for me.”

Toledo-Sherman received additional help from JCSC when the school sent her on a co-op internship to Ciba-Geigy Pharmaceuticals in Summit. “I was exposed to how medicines are discovered and make their way to people,” she says. “My first two scientific publications came from the work I did at Ciba-Geigy before graduate school.”

These days, Toledo-Sherman works at CHDI and she couldn’t be happier. “The most fulfilling thing I have done in my life is to work on Huntington’s disease. My day job is my passion. What I do every day gets us a bit closer to getting medicines for people affected by a terrible disease,” she notes.

“And when I stop to think about how I got to where I am today, what made me really want to be a scientist, I keep coming back to Jersey City State College.”