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Diana Esparza '16 attended the 2015 Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students, in Portland, and received an award for her poster presentation on the research she has conducted at Mount Saint Mary's.

STEM Spotlight: 'Great minds think differently'

Mount Saint Mary’s University has another STEM success story to celebrate here in Los Angeles.

Diana Esparza ’16, a biochemistry major, recently won an award and prize money for her undergraduate biomedical research, earning her a trip to the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students (ABRCMS), held this November in Portland. There, Esparza participated in workshops that helped shape her personal and professional brand, and she listened to leading professionals, such as Dr. Hannah Valantine, chief officer for scientific workforce diversity at the National Institutes of Health.

“It was thrilling and inspiring to be part of the conference,” Esparza says. “All of the workshops helped me understand the importance of professional etiquette, creativity, diversity, and that great minds do not necessarily think alike – rather, great minds think differently.” 

Esparza came to the Mount focused on a career in dermatology. She says that all changed during her first year at the University, when she was exposed to courses in cancer research and molecular biology, and had the chance to participate in a summer internship recommended to her by Eric Stemp, PhD, chair of Physical Sciences and Mathematics at Mount Saint Mary’s. The internship focused on nanotechnology and material science, and it jump-started Esparza’s interest in more hands-on research.

“After that, I decided to opt for a biochemistry major and a mathematics minor to that would fulfill the requirements of an engineering major,” she says. “This will give me the option to pursue a PhD in bioengineering in the future.”

Over the past two summers, Esparza won admission to two additional research programs through the competitive National Science Foundation’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates program. In 2014, she studied drug-delivery systems with artificial vesicles, at UC-Merced. In 2015, she researched how proteins can invade tumor cells, at the University of Notre Dame.

Esparza’s recent, award-winning research – presented at ABRCMS in Portland – focused on the reactivity of DNA-protein bonds that form upon damage of the DNA by oxidation. Sound intimidating? Esparza could probably break it down and explain it to you. In addition to her research experiences, she is also a peer mentor in the University’s STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) program, helping to inspire and prepare generations of STEM students following in her path.

“That has been a very rewarding experience as I learn to be a better leader each day,” Esparza says. “The Mount’s STEM program has opened a lot of doors for me in research, as well as leadership and public speaking.”

Those benefits are especially important to her as an English second-language speaker. A first-generation college student, Esparza moved to California from her native Mexico in 2009.

“Today, she’s one of our most ambitious STEM students,” says her mentor, Dr. Stemp. “As a mentor, she has not only tutored many students in science and math courses, but has also hosted workshops on how to get into summer research program and how to succeed in research. Diana is a terrific representative of the Mount: disciplined, tenacious and fearless.”

In return, Esparza credits her personal and academic growth to professors such as Dr. Stemp, as well as Luiza Nogaj, associate professor of biological sciences, and Joshua Helston, assistant professor of mathematics. 

“One day, I want to help produce affordable and accessible anti-cancer therapies to be delivered to developing countries,” she says. “And I aspire to be a leader like those found at the Mount. All of my mentors, my professors here, have taught me values such as tenacity, discipline, empathy, adaptability and compassion. They have believed in me even more than I have believed in myself.” 

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