Family Illness Allows CELS Undergraduate to Find Her Passion

November 2015

It is not every day you meet an undergraduate student with a triple major in cell and molecular biology, biological sciences, and psychology. But Catherine Garcia, a senior in the College of the Environment and Life Sciences, is not your typical student. This spring, she’ll graduate with a bachelor’s degree in all three areas of study, and she has already been accepted to the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University. Although her academic interests may appear broad, Garcia has a laser-sharp focus on her goal of becoming a cardiac surgeon to help underserved communities.

nov-big-thinkerBorn in the Dominican Republic, Garcia was inspired to pursue medicine by the doctors who performed a life-saving surgery on her cousin’s aorta, the heart artery that supplies oxygenated blood to the body.

“They found the defect, luckily, when she was young,” Garcia explains about her younger cousin’s partially torn aorta. Surgeons from the United States who were volunteering in the Dominican Republic performed the procedure on Garcia’s cousin at no cost. The experience stayed with Garcia and shaped her academic choices.

“I want to do that for other people. That is what motivates me,” insists Garcia as she recalls the operation and its impact on her family.

Garcia understood that to be competitive in medical school, she needed not only a high quality education, but also experience working in both a laboratory and a medical facility.

In the fall of her freshman year at URI, Garcia approached CELS Associate Professor Steven Irvine to inquire about laboratory work opportunities. “I was nervous because it was freshman year. I didn’t know if he was going to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ because I was inexperienced.”

Irvine welcomed her request, and Garcia spent a year working in his biological sciences laboratory learning about technical equipment and laboratory procedures.

Garcia also gained real-world experience in a medical facility by volunteering at Clinic Esperanza, founded by CELS faculty member Dr. Anne DeGroot. The clinic provides free, high quality medical care to uninsured adults living in Rhode Island.

Dr. Gongqin Sun, professor and chairman of the Department of Cell and Molecular Biology, first offers, “Catherine is an outstanding student.” Sun goes on to explain that he views Garcia as a talented, driven, and hard-working undergraduate who takes advantage of all that URI can offer. “She is the type of student that represents URI and the Department of Cell and Molecular Biology well.”

Her personal drive and academic successes are some of the reasons Garcia was invited by URI faculty to participate in the URI-Brown University Early Identification Program (EIP) during her sophomore year. The program aims to help Rhode Island residents and students from underrepresented minority groups pursue careers in medicine. EIP does this by granting early acceptance of sophomores into the medical school, thereby securing the aspiring doctors a place at Brown upon their graduation from URI.

The EIP nomination means a lot to Garcia, providing some security and the sense that she has found her path. She explains that the nomination let her see that, “even though I still hadn’t yet gotten into Brown, at least I knew that there were people here who believed in me.”

Garcia credits her CELS advisors for helping her achieve her goals. Thanks to that nomination and support from her professors, Garcia was accepted into EIP and will be attending the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University in the fall of 2016. Her graduation from CELS this spring will bring her one step closer to her dream job of helping others through medicine as a cardiac surgeon.