San Marcos,
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Biochemistry Student Makes Most of Opportunities

By David Ogul

Rosa Romero’s message is simple: “Whatever opportunities are given to you, take them.”

Indeed, Rosa, one of nearly 3,800 Cal State San Marcos students graduating in May, has made the most of every opportunity that has come her way – from services provided by the nonprofit Girls Inc. in high school and the MARC U*STAR program at CSUSM to the laboratory research afforded by her professors.

This fall she will make the most of another opportunity: a University of Michigan doctoral program in biochemistry.

Rosa credits CSUSM with providing the guidance to realize her goals.

“I love Cal State San Marcos so much,” Rosa said. “I got so much one-one mentoring and I was able to have the opportunities I had because of the professors here. I can’t imagine having gone anywhere else for my undergraduate work.”

The daughter of Mexican immigrants of modest means who didn’t speak English at home, Rosa faced more than her share of challenges navigating the educational system in her early years.

“I think my parents would have been happy for me just to graduate high school,” she said.

Rosa’s path changed when she discovered Girls Inc. during her senior year at San Pasqual High School in Escondido. The San Diego nonprofit’s mission is to empower girls and young women from 8 to 18 and help themsee college as attainable and a career in science, technology, engineering and mathematics also well within their reach. Girls Inc. provided Rosa with a college-readiness program, which guided Rosa in applying to CSUSM, filing forms for financial aid and taking the necessary standardized tests.

“Before that happened, I knew I was going to go to college, but I didn’t know what I was going to do or what I wanted to do,” she said. “I was at one of their events and heard from a speaker who said you have to find a career in doing something you enjoy. So I thought about it, and I remembered when I was younger how excited I was about biology when I learned about stuff like photosynthesis and how I was also interested in chemistry. So I decided I would pursue biochemistry without really knowing what it was.”

It didn’t take long to learn. Rosa became a biochemistry star at CSUSM – literally – through the MARC U*STAR program, an acronym for Maximizing Access to Research Careers – Undergraduate Student Training Research. The program, funded by the National Institute of General Medical Services, is aimed at preparing undergraduate minority students majoring in the sciences to enter and succeed in doctoral studies. Only five new scholars are admitted in the honors research program annually. Students spend up to 15 hours each week during the academic year learning in a research laboratory and 40 hours per week or more in the summer. Students also take part in weekly seminars and workshops, participate in a summer research program outside of the region, and attend scientific meetings to present their findings.

Rosa’s research interests are focused on protein dynamics, including protein misfolding that can lead to diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. She has left an impression with all she comes in contact.

“She really represents the best of what Cal State San Marcos achieves, and achieves regularly, with our students,” said chemistry professor Kambiz Hamadani, who recruited Rosa to work in his research lab. “She didn’t speak great English in her household until she was a little older and she didn’t have a lot of the advantages a lot of other people have, but she is extremely bright, extremely motivated, and she is willing to engage with others to learn. And she makes it seem so simple.”

Indeed, Rosa pretty much takes everything in stride.

“You could pretty much do whatever you want in life as long as you’re willing to put in the work,” she said.

Rosa’s initial research experience was in the laboratory of her organic chemistry professor, Jackie Trischman, with a focus on discovering novel compounds with antibacterial properties against Mycobacterium marinum, the closest genetic relative to Mycobacterium tuberculosis – the causes of tuberculosis. Rosa had found her calling.

“I am extremely grateful to Dr. Trischman for inspiring me to pursue a Ph.D. in research,” she said.

Rosa will have three years of research experience when she begins her doctoral program, including a 10-week summer research program at Yale University last year, before she arrives at the University of Michigan.

“I’m really excited for her future,” Hamadani said. “I can’t wait to see what she’s going to do, and I’m really proud to have been a part of it.”

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