By Liz McKey
For Melanie Mendez, the decision to become a cancer researcher was a personal one. She lost her best friend, Jeffrey, to brain cancer when they were both 6, and her mother, Lili Castellanos ’79, successfully battled breast cancer several years ago.
Yet Mendez almost pursued a different medical career— dentistry. “I hated it,” she recalled of her brief enrollment in dental school in her native Guatemala. “Early on, I realized it wasn’t for me."
She reverted to her true calling, medical research, and transferred to Lynn University to major in biology. “I knew about Lynn because Mom was a student there when it was the College of Boca Raton. I also had visited the school and liked it.”
Mendez loved her time at Lynn, especially her classes taught by Gary Villa and Khalique Ahmed, both of whom she stays in touch with. “I asked for their advice when applying to graduate schools,” she said. “Dr. Villa advised me to choose a master’s degree that I was passionate about and to get more lab experience.”
Mendez found both in Georgetown University’s Tumor Biology master’s program. She was selected from a field of 1,000 applicants and worked in the lab of Dean of Research Robert Clarke, doing breast cancer research. She earned her Master of Science degree and was the student speaker at Georgetown’s Biomedical Graduate Education ceremony. She managed to keep the honor a secret from her mom until the morning of the ceremony.
"She was so excited and crying with joy,” Mendez recalled. “It was both funny and touching. Afterward, one of my professors told her, ‘That was the best commencement speech I’ve ever heard.’"
The following fall, Mendez took the next big step in her education. She began her Ph.D. studies in quantitative and systems biology at the University of California, Merced, where she holds the Eugene Cota-Robles Fellowship. She’s working as a teaching assistant and conducting research at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
One day, all her hard work will pay off when she achieves her ultimate goal: working as a principal investigator with the National Institutes of Health or a similar institution. “Eventually, I’d like to focus on brain cancer,” Mendez said. “My friend Jeffrey had surgeries since age 1 and knew no other life than that.”
Does Mendez have any advice for students who want to follow a path similar to hers? “Stop trying to be normal, because if you’re normal, you’re forgettable,” she said. “Be that annoying person who calls professors you want to study with. Tell them you read about their work and want to be a part of it. Be someone who stands out.”
Melanie Mendez is proof it works.