Oxford-Bound Graduate Follows Her Heart
By Christine Vaughan and Katie Chappell
“You do a lot.”
The simple remark from one of the panelists at her University of Oxford Ph.D. interview spoke volumes about Colleen Lopez’s tenacious spirit and the preparation and mentorship she received at CSUSM.
The statement still echoes in her mind.
“If you are determined enough, you can do anything,” said Colleen, who graduated with her master’s in biological sciences from CSUSM in May.
This fall, the 26-year-old graduate student will move to the U.K. to study cardiovascular stem cell research with the goal of improving heart function for patients after a heart attack.
“Heart conditions run in my family, so this topic really hits home for me,” she said. “Undoubtedly, the opportunity to study and contribute to this research, alongside some of the most brilliant minds in the world, is a dream come true.”
Finding Her Own Way
After earning her bachelor’s degree in anthropology with a minor in education from University of California, Irvine, Colleen struggled to find purpose in work. While volunteering with St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, she found her new calling – she wanted to save lives through applied biomedical research.
She enrolled at Palomar College and began taking the prerequisite science courses to apply for graduate school. Through a collaborative program between Palomar College and CSUSM that mentors minority students in the sciences to enter and succeed in doctoral studies, Colleen began shadowing Cal State San Marcos professors and being exposed to hands-on research.
Colleen was persistent, never missing an opportunity to work in the lab. She knew she wanted to pursue her master’s and it was in Professor Bianca Mothé’s immunology laboratory that she found a focus for her passion.
“Early on, I knew Colleen had the drive and motivation to succeed in science,” said Mothé, professor of biological sciences at CSUSM. “She does not shy away from a challenge and, in fact, excels beyond expectation.”
On the first day of her graduate program at CSUSM, Colleen entered the lab and read a post-it written by Mothé.
The post-it note read: next generation sequencing of MHC – go!
“I was terrified,” Colleen recalled. “But, at the same time, it was the best learning experience.”
Mothé’s belief in her new graduate student’s abilities fueled Colleen’s confidence to rise to the challenge and begin to tackle the uncharted complexities of gene sequencing.
Over the next three years, Colleen led immunology research and studied vaccine development for infectious diseases, like HIV.
Passionate about science and making a difference, she has mentored students as a supplemental instructor and STEM ambassador, and cofounded a vibrant STEM outreach program at CSUSM through the Office of Service Learning, growing the program into a nonprofit that enriches science curriculum for K-5 students at local elementary schools.
Colleen continually leverages her professional network and seeks out additional research opportunities. She logged over 500 hours job shadowing doctors, surgeons and anesthesiologists at Palomar Health and Scripps to better understand how health practitioners integrate and apply research in a hospital setting. As a CIRM scholar, she is currently conducting biomedical stem cell research at the Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute, focusing on using reprogrammed stem cells to model neurodegenerative disease such as Parkinson’s Disease.
Last year, Colleen was one of a small handful of students chosen for a summer research internship at the University of Oxford. The opportunity awakened a new dream for Colleen.
“I remember thinking, I can do this – I belong here,” she noted of her summer semester at Oxford.
The Ph.D. interview panel clearly agreed. Her impressive curriculum vitae far exceeded that of her peer-applicants from Ivy-league universities. At 26, Colleen will join top researchers at Oriel College at the University of Oxford and begin an intensive three-year program to earn her Ph.D. in physiology, anatomy and genetics.
“I have thrived so much in this environment at CSUSM,” said Colleen. “The dynamics here have made it possible for me to follow this path and pursue this dream.”
“Colleen’s perseverance illustrates how seizing opportunities can lead you on a path to your dream,” Mothé added. “I am excited to see her contribute great things in science that will have a profound impact on human lives.”