BOCANEGRA WILL PROBE MYSTERIES OF CANCER
Melanie Bocanegra faced a difficult decision this spring.
But it was a choice that any would-be scientist might envy.
Bocanegra graduated cum laude from Mission College in 2001 and went
on to earn her Bachelors degree in molecular biology at UC
San Diego. Earlier this year, she was accepted to doctorate programs
at Stanford, Harvard and Brown universities as well as UC
Irvine and UC Santa Barbara. All of the programs were in cancer
research or related fields.
With the next several years of her life at stake, she deliberated
carefully. Finally, she chose the Stanford University Ph.D. program
for cancer biology after visiting the Palo Alto campus and feeling
that she "fit right in."
"It tore me up inside to turn down Harvard," she said.
"It was so difficult."
The 23-year-old student spent last summer at an oncology research
program at Harvard, so she was familiar with the university. That
made the decision all the more gut-wrenching.
"I felt that the education and training I would get at Stanford
and Harvard would be about the same the best," she recalled.
"So I decided on the basis of where I would be most comfortable
and able to concentrate on my studies."
That place, she said, was Stanford.
a recent visit to the Mission College campus, she discussed her
decision with her former biology instructor,
Mike Reynolds. He applauds the choice, although perhaps with some
bias as a Stanford graduate himself. Bocanegra describes Reynolds
as one of the inspirational people in her life.
a great mentor," she said. "He has a passion for educating
people and helping them. Its because of him that Ive
done so many of the things that I have done."
It was Reynolds emphasis on "real lab" research
that led her to apply to become one of the first two interns in
a Mission College program with CTL Laboratories, a cancer research
firm in Chatsworth, and to take part in the oncology internship
The choice to research cancer was personal, she said.
"A lot of my family has been riddled by cancer so, naturally,
thats the field that interested me at first," she explained.
She soon learned that the study of cancer is a vast area, but one
that accordingly offers many avenues of research. As a few examples,
she said she can choose to study the different forms of cancer;
the effects of different cancers on different parts of the body;
diseases that cause cancer; treatments that counteract cancer; the
genetics of cancer.
"Its mind-boggling to consider the amount of research
that still needs to be done," she said. "As a scientist,
I might be able to figure out at least one piece of the puzzle.
Even if its a small piece, it will help because were
going to need all of the answers to conquer this disease."
When she completes the Stanford doctorate program about five
years from now she hopes to become a university professor,
where she can continue conducting research while training the next
generation of researchers.
Bocanegra also hopes to play a role some day in reforming the way
science is taught in the public schools. She recalled how she was
first led to science in 7th grade by an no-nonsense teacher who
made her students tackle genetics, forensics, and the effects of
the hydrogen bomb on the Nagasaki survivors. But then, as a teachers
aide in a Sylmar elementary school several years later, Bocanegra
witnessed how science was taught to fifth graders.
"Their science projects were volcanoes and common topics,"
she said. "They didnt give students enough credit for
being able to learn. We should be teaching the scientific method
and deductive reasoning to fifth graders."
Bocanegra believes that many teachers themselves are intimidated
by science and they unintentionally project this discomfort to young
students. Instead of learning to love science, children come to
fear it, she said.
"Theres a message conveyed that science is too hard to
understand," she said. "It shouldnt be that way.
If you love something, its not difficult its
fascinating and interesting to you."
Its not hard to imagine that, soon, Bocanegra will herself
become mentor to many a student.
BY EDUARDO PARDO