Los Angeles Mission College
13356 Eldridge Avenue • Sylmar, CA 91342 • 818.364.7600

NEWS RELEASE                                        

August 28, 2003

Melanie Bocanegra will probe
mysteries of cancer

By Eduardo Pardo

SYLMAR – 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 Bachelor’s 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.

Melanie Bocanegra & Mike Reynolds

"There’s a message conveyed that science is too hard to understand... If you love something, it’s not difficult – it’s fascinating and interesting to you."

During 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."

Mike’s a great mentor," she said. "He has a passion for educating people and helping them. It’s because of him that I’ve 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 at Harvard.

The choice to research cancer was personal, she said.

"A lot of my family has been riddled by cancer so, naturally, that’s 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.

"It’s 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 it’s a small piece, it will help because we’re 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 teacher’s 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 didn’t 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.

"There’s a message conveyed that science is too hard to understand," she said. "It shouldn’t be that way. If you love something, it’s not difficult – it’s fascinating and interesting to you."

It’s not hard to imagine that, soon, Bocanegra will herself become mentor to many a student.