The PANDA story begins in the 1980’s in Tucson, AZ. Louise Thomas, a neighbor and friend of PANDA Co-founder Robyn DeBell was a young mother with a 9 year old son Michael. Michael was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma and passed away –  despite state of the art medical treatments.

From her grief, Louise vowed to start a facility that would help find the cause and cure for terrible childhood diseases, including the cancer that took her young son. The Steele Children’s Research Center was built, and it recruited renowned physicians and staff from around the world. Because the Steele Children’s Research Center was unknown outside of Tucson, its reach was limited and its funding stretched.

In 1989, Robyn’s family moved to Phoenix and shortly after moving Robyn met PANDA Co-founder and community leader, Penny Gunning. For the next two years Penny and Robyn talked at great lengths about how to bring the Steele Children’s Research Center to Phoenix. “We needed a project that would involve several generations – grandparents, young daughters and women our age”, said Robyn. Then one day Penny said “I’ve got a terrific idea for a fundraiser that I’ve always wanted to try – a children’s fashion show.”

The first board was formed by calling on 35 women who were successful in their community, accomplished, confident, and able to chair an event without a notebook to guide them. Our mission and commitment remain the same today. To date, our children’s fashion show and other activities have contributed over $30 million to the Steele Children’s Research Center. We take great pride in knowing these funds have made possible lifesaving outcomes for Arizona children and their families, some our own.

If Michael Thomas was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma today, the Steele Children’s Research Center could treat his disease, and quite possibly he would be alive and still with us today. This passion and determination is what drives our purpose and the PANDA story forward every day.

PANDA’s Mission

The mission of the Phoenix Women’s Board of the Steele Children’s Research Center is to support discovery processes that lead to improved treatments and cures for devastating childhood diseases. The Board accomplishes its mission by raising awareness and private funding for the Steele Children’s Research Center at the University of Arizona.

History of PANDA Accomplishments


PANDA First 1,000 Days Pediatric Project supports translational research into pediatric nutrition as well as research to advance technology in congenital heart disease which impacts nearly one in 100 babies.


PANDA Genome Sequencing Project funds the purchase of the NovaSeq 6000 System, a state-of-the-art genome sequencing machine that is faster and more efficient than past genome sequencing equipment.


PANDA Vision of Research Project funds vital medical research in autoimmunity, developmental/ behavioral pediatrics, and genomic medicine to produce new ideas, novel treatments, and hope to find cures for our children.


PANDA Children’s Cancer Inflammation Project investigates the gut health of children undergoing bone marrow transplants with the goal of adjusting their diets to improve their responses to treatment and prolong life.


PANDA Children’s Epilepsy Project explores both the basic science and the clinical aspects of epilepsy with an emphasis on children diagnosed as infants or at an early age.


PANDA Children’s Autoimmunity and Allergies Project supports researchers as they seek to unravel the mystery of common autoimmune issues among children.


PANDA Personalized Pediatric Medicine Project supports pilot studies and establishes an integrated system for personalized medical approaches to treat children suffering from complex diseases, including cancer.


PANDA Children’s Anti-Tumor Immunity Program supports research to identify a new generation of anti-cancer drugs with the ability to contain the cancer, develop natural immunity to the cells, and reduce the emergence of tumor cell clones. and reduce the emergence of tumor cell clones.


PANDA Children’s Autoimmune Disorders Project helps researchers find answers that are desperately needed for families facing the challenges of autoimmune diseases. In 2014, the White Coat fund is also supported.


PANDA Children’s Autoimmune Disorders Project helps researchers find answers that are desperately needed for families facing the challenges of autoimmune diseases. 


Phoenix Translational Research Center conducts clinical translational research in the areas of necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC) and type 1 diabetes.


PANDA Healthy Babies Project battles necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC) preterm infants with highest-level clinical services and cutting edge basic science research. 


PANDA Children’s Cancer Immunology Program fund research for the new option of treatment of immunotherapy which re-programs a child’s own disease-fighting cells to recognize his or her own individual cancer cells and prevent them from multiplying.


PANDA Children’s Neurological Center improves the lives of thousands of families in Arizona whose children suffer from neurological disorders -encompassing traumatic brain injury, stroke, autism, near-drowning, meningitis, brain tumors, cerebral palsy and other causes.  


Women in Science Project supports promising female physician-scientists as they build their clinical and research careers. White Coat fund is also supported.


The PANDA Children’s Aerodigestive Disorders Center is funded as the first place in the western U.S. where children can receive dedicated care for painful aerodigestive disorders. White Coat fund is also supported.


PANDA supports a research program at Steele Children’s Research Center for pediatric immunology and cardio-thoracic surgery.


PANDA funds pediatric cancer research and also established a White Coat Fund to recruit promising young research scholars.


PANDA supports the IBD collaboration with TGen, Phoenix Children’s Hospital, and the Steele Children’s Research Center.


PANDA supports a research lab to explore the lung development of premature babies.


The first PANDA Scholar is recruited to study pediatric heart development to eventually determine at what point the heart begins to develop abnormally.


PANDA purchases a Virtek Chip Writer – the microarray technology speeds the search for genes responsible for specific diseases.


PANDA purchases an AutoGen Robot for researchers to prepare and purify DNA to define genetic origins of devastating childhood diseases.