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Alicia Mercado: Unstoppable Scholar 2022

Thanks to the generosity of donors, Alicia Mercado '22 has the freedom and ability to pursue her graduate studies unburdened by debt

March 2, 2022

This year’s Scholarship Celebration marks the upcoming closure of the Mount journey for Unstoppable Scholar award winner Alicia Mercado ’22, a biochemistry major.

Mercado speaks enthusiastically about her family, her mentors at the Mount, scientific research and her hopes for the future in an easy lilt punctuated by laughter. Determined to pursue both a PhD and MD, Mercado has another eight or nine years of academics ahead.

The recipient of a Le Puy scholarship, Mercado’s academic performance enabled her to receive additional aid from the Darmody Family Expendable Scholarship, W.M. Keck Foundation Endowed Scholarship, Monica Spillane Luechtefeld Endowed Scholarship, Charlene Anne Setlow STEM Scholarship for Women and the UNOVA Foundation Endowed Scholarship. 

Alicia Mercado '22 has spent countless hours in Mount labs and summers involved in research esteemed programs like those offered at Caltech. But that's what makes her happy. She's eyeing her upcoming graduation and looking forward to pursuing an MD/PhD in the near future.
Alicia Mercado '22 has spent countless hours in Mount labs and summers involved in research esteemed programs like those offered at Caltech. But that's what makes her happy. She's eyeing her upcoming graduation and looking forward to pursuing an MD/PhD in the near future.

“To come out of college debt free is a blessing, especially when I have three siblings behind me and another eight or nine years of education myself. I am eternally grateful to everyone who has assisted me in the pursuit of my academic and career aspirations.”

Mount alum Alejandra (Mercado) Hoff ’02, Mercado’s aunt, served as Mercado’s academic role model. Hoff is an elementary school teacher, and Mercado has vivid memories of going to her classes, where she was close in age to her aunt’s pupils. “At her school, each teacher's classroom had their own little cheer according to where the teacher went to college. For my aunt it was, ‘MSMC college is for you and me!’ And on Thursday mornings there were college assemblies where the kids were asked who was going to college and I’d always be cheering and yelling, ‘I am! I am!’ so I guess you could say I always expected to come to the Mount. My aunt and my parents always encouraged me.”

By the time Mercado was in high school, she was in an honors independent research and science course and was able to do some work with Caltech. “I saw that research was a way to help people, which was very exciting,” said Mercado. “At that time I was really thinking only about medical school. I really wanted to help people because my parents emphasized that we should be of service to our communities and to give back. That vision inspired me, and I really love math and sciences, so I thought being a doctor was a natural way to go.”

Her vision for the future quickly expanded at the Mount. Biological science associate professor Adriane Jones, PhD, was the first to expose Mercado to research at the Mount. The first-year student had some misgivings, however: “I was worried that I would be taking the opportunity away from someone who had wanted to do research their entire life,” she explained, “but Dr. Jones encouraged me to apply, and look at me now. I love research!”

Mercado’s life filled up with labs in addition to the work she did with Jones: computational chemistry with professor Deniz Cizmeciyan, PhD, physical sciences and mathematics and chair of mathematics, as well as molecular biology and diabetes research labs with Luiza Nogaj, PhD, biological science professor and co-chair of Global Women in STEM.

“I came to the realization that I couldn't live life without research and that I was going to pursue a PhD in molecular biology,” Mercado said. “I love my professors. I can tell them everything, and they’ve really influenced me. They do so many amazing things in their fields.”

A highlight of Mercado’s time as an undergraduate was a summer internship she had with UCLA’s Samueli Engineering Summer Undergraduate Research Program and having her findings published in the program’s journal. She also participated in the MSMU/USC Geopaths Catalina Scholar Program, where she conducted and presented hands-on research at the University of Southern California’s Wrigley Institute for Environmental Science; presented at the Mount’s Women in Science and Health symposium, and the Southern California Conference for Undergraduate Research in Computational Chemistry. Mercado also attended the Gateways to the Laboratory virtual program, run by Weill Cornell Medicine, The Rockefeller University, and Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. This past summer Mercado was a WAVE Fellow at the California Institute of Technology, working under Ellen Rothenberg, PhD.

Mercado also made time to contribute to her fellow students’ Mount experiences. She was the Student Government Association’s first academic affairs chair last year as well as being the past event coordinator and current president of the Women in Science and Health club. She also volunteers as a tutor in biology, chemistry and mathematics for the Mount’s Institute for Student Academic Enrichment.

As for grad school, Mercado, who lives in El Monte, is hoping to stay local. She’s ultimately eyeing a dual MD/PhD program with Kaiser Permanente and Caltech in Pasadena. In a few months, Mercado hopes to hear from various post-baccalaureate programs as well as job opportunities at places like Cedars-Sinai. In the meantime, she’ll enjoy her last few months at the Mount.

Whichever direction her future path leads her, she’s up for the challenge. “My parents are great role models for their work ethic,” she explained. “They’ve always told me to give 110%. It’s so cliché, but they always told me to work hard and to not stop.”

Being named the Unstoppable Scholar for 2022 was an unexpected honor for Mercado. “So many of my fellow students are doing amazing things and showing their leadership skills,” she said. “But it really warms my heart that leadership thinks highly of me. That makes me so happy.”