The math and science faculty at PLNU invest their hearts and their time because of their passion for students. The results speak for themselves in the lives of graduates who have gone on to professional success and service. Meet just a few of PLNU’s math, computing, and science alumni and get a sense of where an education like this can lead.
Dr. Bob Wiese (82) first became interested in conservation and wildlife preservation as a biology student at PLNU. Involved in one of the first summer research groups to participate in field biology, Wiese worked with fellow students to study endangered birds on San Clemente Island. Feeling an instant connection with and gratification from that work, he went on to study genetics and breeding programs at the graduate level at Colorado State University.
Equipped with a talent and passion for keeping wildlife populations healthy, Wiese started his career with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, an accrediting body for zoos and aquariums, where he worked with zoos across the country to set up breeding programs for endangered animals. After six years in this position, he was hired by the Forth Worth Zoo to not only help with its breeding programs, but also to assist with the zoo’s daily operations, gaining valuable experience and knowledge in the areas of exhibit design and animal welfare.
In 2006, after working with the Fort Worth Zoo for 10 years, Wiese came back to his Southern California roots, signing on with San Diego Zoo Global as its chief life sciences officer. Here, he oversees the health and well-being of all animals and plants and helps ensure the guest experience is always enjoyable and educational. But perhaps most importantly, Wiese seeks to engage in conservation projects across the globe and inspire those visiting the zoo to do the same.
“The goal of SD Zoo Global is to lead the fight against extinction, and we want to energize people to help us in that fight,” said Wiese. “So when I bring in new animals to the zoo, I try to determine which species the public will be more interested in and engage with and which animal’s story will inspire the public and increase its efforts to try to save that animal.” With so many responsibilities, Wiese admits that no two days are ever alike. Between consulting and mentoring for zoos and conservation programs across the world and participating in national and international conferences, Wiese has no shortage of things to do. In a matter of weeks he has traveled from Colorado to study genetic variations in black-footed ferrets to Tasmania, where he helped re-introduce Tasmanian Devils into the wild after a fatal disease threatened the entire population.
When not traveling the globe, Wiese is involved with strategic planning initiatives, exhibit design, and animal welfare policy at the San Diego Zoo and Safari Park. Though the San Diego team does a great job providing optimal nutrition, healthcare, social interaction, and breeding programs, Wiese knows there is always room for improvement and is constantly looking for ways to provide better care for every animal that calls San Diego home.
“People tend to think about elephants and rhinos and how they need good nutrition and mental and physical stimulation and adequate enclosures that can support their overall well-being,” Wiese said. “But people don’t realize that every animal needs that, from the elephants and rhinos down to the snakes and lizards, and it’s our job to provide those things.”
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After graduating with a biology degree from Pasadena College, Dr. Doug Cavener (73) worked as a research assistant at Harvard University, earned his Ph.D. from the University of Georgia, and participated in postdoctoral research at Cornell University. He then held a faculty position for 18 years in the Department of Molecular Biology at Vanderbilt University before taking his current post as head of the Department of Biology at Penn State, where he has been for the last 14 years. But what’s more impressive than where he has been is the work he’s doing.
Cavener is a researcher in molecular cell biology and genetics, with a specific interest in the regulation, function, and evolution of genes. For the past 10 years, this interest has culminated in a focus on genes that are key in regulating processes for glucose homeostasis, as well as memory and learning. One of the genes Cavener is currently studying, known as “PERK,” affects these processes by regulating calcium signaling and protein trafficking.
“Calcium plays a key role in stimulating the release of insulin from the pancreas and neurotransmitters from neurons in the brain, and by studying how this gene regulates calcium, protein trafficking, and secretion, we hope to learn how to better treat diseases such as diabetes and Alzheimer’s,” explained Cavener. “In addition, these calcium-dependent processes in the brain underlie the very basic mechanisms of learning and memory, and our recent studies demonstrate that PERK also impacts working memory and behavioral flexibility.”
This research only scratches the surface of Cavener’s involvements. In the past year and a half, he has headed up a project to sequence the giraffe genome for the first time to understand not only how the giraffe got its long neck, but also how animals evolve different forms and functions. In addition, he is currently helping establish the science program at the Nelson Mandela African Institute of Science and Technology, a new university in Tanzania created in response to Nelson Mandela’s dream of developing an MIT caliber institution in Africa. A firm believer in this project, Cavener currently serves as an adjunct professor there and has helped the university apply for research and faculty-student development grants.
With such a remarkable list of science-related credentials, it’s hard to believe that Cavener entered Pasadena College as a history major. It wasn’t until taking an introduction to biology course with Glenn Keys his sophomore year that an interest in the sciences began to form. Curious to learn more, he enrolled in Dr. Vic Heasley’s organic chemistry class.
“Dr. Heasley taught me that science isn’t something you learn; it’s something you do. Through him, I saw that science is about discovering and seeking the truth, and that’s why I decided I wanted to be a scientist,” he said.
That decision not only changed the course of his career, but has also greatly impacted the science community. Since becoming the head of Penn State’s biology department in 2000, he has doubled the department’s faculty to more than 50 members. In addition to increasing the size, he has also increased the caliber of the department, which is now ranked No. 6 among all biological science departments in the nation based on faculty research accomplishments.
Perhaps most cherished among his achievements are the relationships he has built with the Ph.D. students he has trained over the course of his career. It is in these relationships Cavener feels things have truly come full circle, as he uses the encouraging moments he had with his own professors at Pasadena College to now inspire the next generation.
“For the past 32 years I have been continually training cohorts of four or five Ph.D. students, and I meet with them individually almost every day,” said Cavener. “My goal is not to just teach them skills, but also how to think critically and how to make sound judgments. I try to open their minds to discovery while also dealing with ever-present failures and setbacks. Science is the ultimate high-stakes detective mystery, a book still being written, one you can’t put down at night.”
Related Article: A Frightening New World? A look at gene editing and transhumanism.
In Jessica Womack’s (09) senior seminar class, professor of mathematics Dr. Maria Zack invited a guest speaker to address Womack and other students majoring in information systems. The speaker was a recruiter from SAIC, a leading provider of information technology services and support. As a result of that class, Womack made connections that not only landed her a summer internship, but also catapulted her career in the world of information systems.
For the last five years, Womack has worked as a systems engineer with SAIC, contracting with Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center Pacific (SPAWAR), the premier research, development, test, and evaluation laboratory for the U.S. Navy’s command, control, communications, computers, and intelligence. Her team, Integrated Shipboard Network System (ISNS) Engineering, designs and maintains the internal network infrastructure on all afloat Navy ships. ISNS enables real-time information exchange within the ship and between other ships, shore sites, fleet commanders, and family and friends at home.
A typical day for Womack includes meeting with customers (such as SPAWAR) to brainstorm engineering solutions for various hardware or software problems, working with developer groups to integrate new software or hardware into ISNS, and maintaining these systems to keep them up-to-date and functioning properly.
While most of Womack’s work is done remotely, the rare opportunities she does get to work onsite are the most rewarding. When visiting a Navy ship, Womack is typically involved with what’s called a “proof-in,” where she works with sailors to ensure they can use new software or system features efficiently, before updates are sent to the entire fleet.
“It’s really interesting to see sailors interacting with the system and being there to answer their questions or fix any problems they have,” said Womack. “Without seeing the system in action, it’s hard to see what it is you have actually been working toward. But when you do see it in use, it makes it all worth it.”
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After three years as a pre-med student at UC Davis, Dr. David Ryan (82) realized he wasn’t succeeding at the level needed to get into medical school. But, when his dream of becoming a doctor seemed to be slipping away, he knew where to turn for help.
“I went to Dr. Val Christensen, who was dean of PLNU’s College of Arts and Sciences at the time, and told him my situation,” said Ryan. “I knew the school had an excellent track record for getting people into the medical field, so I asked if he could help me get there, too. He told me I would have to take some classes over, but if I worked really hard, I had a good shot.”
After two years as a bio-chem major at PLNU, Ryan graduated and applied to medical school. After being rejected from his top choice, USC, he did some investigating and learned that his grade in organic chemistry was the culprit. Frustrated but undeterred, Ryan returned to PLNU to retake the course and was admitted into USC the following year.
Now 22 years into his career as a family practitioner in Point Loma, 14 of which have been at his own practice, it’s clear that Ryan’s never give-up attitude paid off. And though he admits he did work hard to get here, he credits the PLNU professors, like Dr. Vic Heasley and Dr. Mike McConnell, who helped him along the way.
“I can’t say enough about the professors in the science program at PLNU. My experience was unbelievable, as was the caliber of the education they provided. It wasn’t just their background in the sciences; it was their ability to teach. There is a big difference between being smart and having an aptitude and ability to teach students,” said Ryan.
In addition to being an advocate for the science program, Ryan is also a big proponent of the well-rounded, liberal arts education he received, which he says has greatly influenced his balanced approach to medicine—and to life. In addition to treating patients, Ryan volunteers with Genesis Diez, an outreach organization that works with the migrant children and families in the Ensenada area, to offer mobile medical care to communities in need. He also serves on the board of directors at the Peninsula YMCA; is an elder in his church; and stays active as a cyclist, sailor, surfer, and tennis player.
Many of Kristin Vacala’s (06) workdays are spent behind the scenes, in a dark room, observing people. While her work may not sound glamorous, Vacala’s research has a big impact on cancer patients throughout the country.
Vacala is a senior manager for Patient Insights, a group within Genentech, one of the world’s leading biotech companies.
“We are the voice of patients,” Vacala said of her team. “We find out what their needs are and learn how we can better support them and relate that info to other groups within the company.”
Her work primarily involves collaborating with market research agencies to set up patient discussion groups for Genentech oncology products. Though Vacala doesn’t interact directly with patients, she is never far away, intently listening to their responses and taking detailed notes of their experiences. She then takes what she learns and works closely with Genentech’s marketing team to update patient resources.
Vacala’s work perfectly blends her dual degrees in biology and business. Originally on the pre-med track at PLNU, Vacala discovered that in addition to science, she had an interest in the corporate world. With the help of biology professor Dr. Dawne Page, she was able to launch from college life into a biotech internship, where she quickly realized her passion for the industry.
“I couldn’t imagine doing what I do now without having the experiences I did in the science and business departments,” she said. “Even though I’m working on the commercial side of biotech, I wouldn’t be able to understand the products and help translate that information to patients without my background in biology. And without the support I received in both departments, I don’t think I would be where I am today.”
Dr. Elinor (Twyeffort) (00) Irish is a research fellow in physics at the University of St. Andrews in the U.K. While her title is straightforward, what she researches is quite complex.
“There is physics that explains how big things work, and then there is physics that explains how small things, like atoms, work,” said Irish. “Things act quite differently when they get small, and quantum physics, which is what I study, explains those behaviors.”
Irish says that typically, to study quantum physics, strict parameters must be in place. For example, in most cases, the study sample must remain isolated and in very cold temperatures to prevent contamination. However, about seven years ago, an exception was found. Physicists learned that some bacteria, specifically bacteria that are photosynthetic, behave quantum-mechanically despite not being in a controlled environment. This is where Irish’s research comes in to answer two significant questions: Does quantum physics make the photosynthesis process more efficient, and if so, how?
Based on studies of samples of these bacteria, primarily found on the bottom of lakes, Irish comes up with mathematical models to describe their behavior and how they effectively transfer energy during photosynthesis. Irish then uses these models to tell a story about what she has found to submit her research for journal publication.
Though the applications of her research are still a long way off, they are promising for the future of sustainable energy. The desired outcome of this research—understanding what makes the process of photosynthesis in these bacteria so efficient—may mean one day improving solar cells in hopes of relying more on sunlight for our electricity supply rather than fossil fuels.
Irish has been interested in quantum physics ever since one of her high school science teachers recommended some recreational reading on the subject. Immediately captivated, Irish attended PLNU as a physics major, after which she enrolled in the physics Ph.D. program at the University of Rochester in New York.
“When I went to graduate school, I was intimidated because I knew I would be going up against students from really prestigious schools,” she said. “But I quickly discovered that my educational background was just as good if not better than the other students. I was really impressed to discover that my physics degree from PLNU stacked up very well against those from universities across the country.”
Aside from the solid physics foundation she received, she also feels incredibly grateful for the other ways PLNU prepared her for her work—like her public speaking class that equipped her to travel and present her research at conferences around the world, or her creative writing class that has enabled her to effectively write concise, informative abstracts for her findings. It is because of her combined scientific and liberal arts background, Irish says, that she can take part in complex research projects and then effectively communicate her work to people both in and out of the science community.
After 21 years as a science teacher at Olive Pierce Middle School in Ramona, Calif., and one year in his current teaching position at Francis Parker Middle School in San Diego, Myles Vandegrift (88) has no doubt the classroom is where he is called to be.
“I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing,” said Vandegrift. “Middle school is a crazy time of transition for students, and their energy is amazing. They need someone to believe in them and challenge them to think bigger and help them develop a bigger picture for their lives.”
Vandegrift’s advocacy for his students is reflective of the investment his PLNU biology professors made in him. As a student who struggled academically, Vandegrift credits his success to the teachers who believed in him and transferred their passion for education to him. As a result, he is now a firm believer that every student, when given proper attention and support, has something to offer and has the capacity to succeed. And for Vandegrift, success is about more than just acing exams.
“I want to inspire my students to think for themselves. Science isn’t just about being book-smart; it’s about doing. It’s about trying and failing. Without failure, you can’t ever truly succeed. If my students don’t get anything else from my class, I want them to get that,” he said.
Vandegrift’s pursuit of excellence in teaching has led him to be a life-long learner, constantly studying new theories on how to most effectively engage students. Some of the most impactful experiences thus far have been ones outside the traditional classroom. While at Olive Pierce, he led his students on trips to conduct biodiversity studies in the Amazon rainforest. Immersed in a new culture and environment, the students gained valuable global perspective, as well as scientific insight. Similarly, in his first year at Francis Parker, Vandegrift led a trip to China, where his students took in the sights, learned about Chinese culture and language, and participated in classes alongside students from their host school in Beijing.
Vandegrift’s investment in his students extends well beyond academics. Over the years, he has seen many students struggle as they deal with tough situations and often end up making poor choices. It is this part of teaching that presents him with both the greatest challenge and reward. While he isn’t able to help all of his students, Vandegrift seizes what opportunities he has to encourage and serve and let his faith shed light amidst darkness.
Joy Stringer’s (96) love for chemistry began after taking organic chemistry with Dr. Heasley her sophomore year at PLNU. After a December graduation, she began her employment with AMPAC Fine Chemicals in January 1997, and she hasn’t looked back since.
Stringer was originally hired as a research and development chemist with AMPAC, a company that manufactures active chemical ingredients for customers in the pharmaceutical industry. At first, Stringer spent most of her time in the lab, developing chemical routes for compounds.
Once a specific route was determined and approved, she worked in chemical plants to make sure the process was introduced smoothly and everyone was trained adequately.
Over time, Stringer learned how to interact with customers and became increasingly interested in the company’s business operations. This interest eventually culminated in a transition to executive director of project management for AMPAC. Still considered part of the R&D department, Stringer’s group develops manufacturing routes for chemical compounds.
“We make a compound in hopes that it moves on to clinical trials,” explained Stringer. “Once it is approved for testing, you have to have a route to manufacture the compound for trials. And if it passes and is approved to go on the market, you have to have a process to get it there as well. In both cases, the compounds must be manufactured in larger quantities than are required in the lab, so we come up with a plan to scale up the synthesis.”
Stringer describes her current position as an interface between the technical and business sides of the company. While this role allows her to delve into building customer relationships and negotiating contracts, she is still very present in the lab, where she manages a team of chemists and oversees plans for ingredient manufacturing.
Now 17 years into her employment with AMPAC, Stringer is content with her work and grateful for the opportunities she had at PLNU that helped get her there.
“PLNU is unique in the research opportunities they offer to undergraduate science students,” she said. “The research I was involved with strengthened my lab skills, gave me confidence in my abilities, and prepared me better than a lot of people coming out of other schools.”
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Now nine years into his work as an associate professor of mathematics at Stephen F. Austin State University (SFA) in Texas, Dr. Keith Hubbard (00) is grateful for the positive influences he had as a math major at PLNU that have helped shape his teaching career.
“The most rewarding part of my work is getting to invest in the lives of my students, and PLNU is where I first saw that done well,” he said. “I have modeled my teaching after the professors I had there, and that has resulted in some wonderful, symbiotic relationships over the years.”
Hubbard uncovered a fondness for teaching while earning his Ph.D. at the University of Notre Dame. Since then, his commitment to teaching has resulted in a flourishing career at SFA, earning him the 2014 Teaching Excellence Award from SFA’s College of Sciences and Mathematics. And his love for teaching extends well beyond his own classroom as he works to inspire the next generation of math and science educators. In addition to teaching, he currently serves as project director for Talented Teachers in Training for Texas. This program, funded by a National Science Foundation grant, aims to recruit and train high school science and math teachers by providing resources such as a job shadow program, prospective teacher workshops, and scholarship opportunities. He is also part of the National Council of Teachers in Mathematics, is on the Articulation and Placement Committee for the Mathematics Association of America, and is actively involved in research exploring how to most effectively appeal to and mentor science and math teachers.
Hubbard’s eagerness to engage students and strengthen the future of math education stems from his faith and the call of Colossians 3:23-24: “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.” It is this approach, he says, that sets him apart in his work and inspires him to love unconditionally, work hard, seek humility, and always look for opportunities to serve others.
“College helps mold you into who you’re going to be; it’s when you have a chance to decide what you believe,” said Dr. Robin Leach (78), professor and chief of the research division at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio (UTHSCSA). “At PLNU, my faith became my own. Receiving a science education from Christian believers taught me that God and science can coexist, and that foundation has helped sustain me through the years.”
Like her faith, Leach’s commitment to research has remained constant. After receiving a bachelor’s in biology and mathematics from PLNU, she attended the University of Utah and earned her doctorate in biology with a focus on human genetics. From there, she accepted a postdoctoral fellowship at USC, where she studied gene regulation, before accepting her position at UTHSCSA.
Leach has been involved in multiple areas of genetics research over the years, including diabetes and schizophrenia, but cancer genetics has been the primary focus of her work. More specifically, for the last two decades, she has been studying biomarkers that may help detect
prostate cancer, the second most common type of cancer among American men.
While prostate cancer can be life threatening, this is only the case when it spreads outside the prostate, Leach explained. And because this occurs only about 20 percent of the time, there is a risk of overtreatment for many patients. Leach and her team are looking for markers that will help indicate which cases will become aggressive in hopes of determining which patients should seek treatment and which should simply track their cancer to make sure it doesn’t progress. By helping make that distinction, Leach sees potential to empower and educate patients.
“It used to be that the doctor made the decisions for you,” she said. “But now, with more information available, patients want to decide for themselves, and we want to give them tools to help them make informed decisions. In that way, I feel my research is clinically relevant. Or, as it is commonly stated, ‘The research goes from bench to the bedside.’”
Leach loves being in the lab, working hands-on with her research, but admits that role is only one of many. She is also part of the Early Detection Research Network for the National Cancer Research Institute, and she helps train staff and organize clinical trials as the chief of the research division for the Department of Urology at UTHSCSA. As professor and director of the school’s training program in genetics and genomics, she oversees doctoral students, teaches genetics and personalized medicine, and works with medical students to help analyze results from clinical studies. And like her husband, Chuck (page 32), she stays actively involved with her alma mater and the professional development of PLNU’s science students and faculty as part of Research Associates.
Tyler Fisher (04) describes his choice to pursue physics very simply: “It just made sense.” At PLNU, he worked closely with his professors. One professor in particular, Dr. Dee Puntenney, brought his expertise in the realm of medical physics to the classroom, and Fisher immediately gravitated toward the subject matter.
Fisher graduated from PLNU with a bachelor’s in engineering physics and went on to earn his master’s in physics from San Diego State University. He worked for a year at Sharp HealthCare, where he focused on radiation therapy for cancer treatment, before moving on to his current position: consultant diagnostic medical physicist for Therapy Physics.
For the last seven years, Fisher has worked in this role to ensure that healthcare facilities throughout Southern California are meeting industry regulations for medical imaging equipment. He tests a variety of equipment, including MRI, CT, mammography, and X-ray machines, to verify that each is operating correctly, providing quality images, and is safe for patient and physician use.
In addition, he works alongside architects to help design imaging rooms, advising them on specifics such as how much lead should go into the walls to offer adequate protection.
While Fisher credits PLNU for preparing him technically to do the work he does now, he recognizes his career success is due to more than just his physics classes.
“My time at PLNU helped me become a well-rounded individual, someone who can communicate and write and be thrown into a social situation and know what I’m doing,” he said. “You have to know how to build trust and develop personal relationships and make people feel comfortable, and I think PLNU does a great job at preparing students for that.”
Related Article: PLNU physics professor, Michelle Chen, Ph.D., inspires young women (and men) who are passionate about the sciences.
Lauren Nelson (08) graduated from PLNU with more than a degree in math; she graduated with a concern for health disparities and a strong desire to use her analytical skills to help people. Under the guidance of Drs. Maria Zack and Greg Crow, she participated in PLNU’s honors program, analyzing health data from sub-Saharan Africa using data from the World Health Organization.
Interested in finding a career that would combine her love of numbers with her passion for helping others, Nelson began to consider epidemiology, a field that studies how and why diseases spread within certain populations. After earning a Master of Public Health in epidemiology from Emory University in 2013, Nelson was offered her current position, a fellowship with the environmental health investigations branch of the California Department of Public Health. Her work investigates how health issues, such as developmental disabilities and cancer, are influenced by environmental factors like chemicals, pollutants, air quality, and exposure to secondhand smoke.
“I have found a place where I feel I’m contributing to the betterment of society,” she said. “I have a purpose and am part of solving problems that have a big impact on people. Even though I haven’t been in the field long enough to see the final outcomes of the projects I’m working on, I know that eventually I will see the results of my work and how it impacts communities, and that will be incredibly rewarding.”
Nelson’s fellowship ends in August, and while she is considering opportunities within other branches of the state health department and various California county health departments, she would ultimately like to stay on as a full-time employee with her current branch. Regardless of where she ends up, she is confident the skills, drive, and heart for people she developed as a student at PLNU will serve her well as she seeks to serve those around her.
Dr. Rene (Rick) Bravo’s (79) decision to become a physician wasn’t made on a whim; it was the result of what he calls “divinely inspired experiences” that started in his teenage battle against lymphoma.
“At an early age I was exposed to the concept of my own mortality,” he said. “During these impressionable teen years I was really moved by the kindness and compassion of my doctors, and that sparked my desire to enter medicine and dedicate my life to the healing and care of others.”
That desire was solidified at PLNU, where Bravo studied biology, took part in summer research, and worked closely with his professors. After earning his bachelor’s, he attended medical school at UCSF and completed his residency at Stanford, before launching into private practice pediatrics in San Luis Obispo. In 2000, he founded his own practice, Bravo Pediatrics, where he continues to pursue his personal and professional goal of providing the best possible care to his patients. Now 28 years into his career, Bravo has never regretted his decision and remains firmly committed to the call of medicine.
“I like to tell people that I care for the future. Working with young children, I see future mothers and fathers and leaders of our society, and I strongly believe in investing in them,” he said.
In addition to serving the people of San Luis Obispo, Bravo is an advocate for global outreach. As part of what he calls the “salt and light phenomenon,” Bravo travels internationally, lending his medical expertise, sharing words of hope, and living out Christ’s example of caring for others. In the ’80s and ’90s, Bravo traveled to Guatemala with Nazarene Compassionate Ministries, where he offered vaccinations and pediatric care to orphans. This fall, he will resume his medical mission work, traveling to Romania with an outreach team from his church.
When he isn’t in the office or on the mission field, Bravo stays active in a number of medical organizations. He is a member of the California Medical Association, the former chief of pediatrics for San Luis Obispo’s Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center, and chairman for the San Luis Obispo/Santa Barbara Regional Health Authority. He previously served as president and currently sits on the board of trustees for U.S. Pharmacopeia, which sets worldwide pharmaceutical standards and is the oldest medical organization in the country.
Among his many involvements, he also sits on the board of PLNU’s Research Associates. Thankful for the opportunities offered at PLNU—like proximity to qualified professors, development of critical thinking skills, and a community that takes students beyond coursework to better understand the depth of the human experience—Bravo is eager to help provide the same transformational college experience he had to the next generation of scientists.
Dr. Nathan Kemalyan’s (83) favorite part of his work as a surgical and burn specialist and medical director at Oregon Burn Center isn’t just helping his patients feel better physically; it’s comforting them through extreme difficulty and watching them leave with new hope and a second chance at life.
“Everybody who enters the burn center is in crisis, whether or not they have life-threatening burns,” said Kemalyan. “A burn is about more than physical injury; it’s about your identity as a person and whether you are going to be acceptable to the public or your loved ones; it’s about how the world sees you and how you see yourself. It’s our job to walk with our patients through that experience.”
Kemalyan and his team work to close wounds, whether that’s through surgery or aiding the burns as they heal gradually on their own. And while recovery is always the hope, it isn’t always the reality. In those cases, Kemalyan’s job transitions from healing to helping those patients and their families prepare for death.
Whether helping the 95 percent who will be able to leave the burn center, or the 5 percent who won’t, the most challenging part of Kemalyan’s work comes in the threat of emotional and mental fatigue that exists when treating his patients. This form of burnout, known as “compassion fatigue,” can result from providing intensive care for others on a constant basis. Every patient adds to that fatigue—especially the ones who don’t make it—and Kemalyan has to not only pay attention to his own health but to the health of his staff, making sure each physician, nurse, therapist, and other team member adequately recovers after dealing with a difficult situation. Here, Kemalyan says, is where
his faith is key as he finds sustainment through prayer and giving his burdens to God daily.
As part of his work at the burn center, Kemalyan is also an associate clinical professor at Oregon Health & Science University, where he works with students in their residency program. Kemalyan’s involvements outside of being a physician, surgeon, and professor further exemplify his love for serving others and his commitment to the medical field. He is the current president of the Oregon state chapter of the American College of Surgeons, and he is a member of the American Burn Association’s International Outreach Committee. Additionally, he has been involved with short term mission work in Zambia, where he helped organize the burn care unit for a large mission hospital.
Kemalyan says everything up to this point—his love for science, his heart for serving, and his career success—has been directly influenced by his time at PLNU.
“I not only learned the basic mechanisms of biology and chemistry and the importance of research to a thriving professional career, but also how to be a servant leader and how to grapple with the interface of science and faith,” said Kemalyan. “All of these things helped me set a firm foundation for my career, and they still inform the way I practice medicine.”
Though many of Dr. Chuck Leach’s (76) patients aren’t very big in stature, the size of their needs are a different story. Leach is chief of pediatric infectious disease at Baylor College of Medicine and Children’s Hospital of San Antonio. As such, he works with fellow physicians who need help with patient diagnosis or treatment, provides consultations for new patients, and follows up with existing patients to track their
response to treatment and look for signs of infection.
Leach sees a broad range of infectious diseases. Some rare ones require him to hit the books, researching symptoms, treatments, and proper management. Others are more common, such as pediatric cancer patients who run the risk of infection from IVs used for chemotherapy. At times, these infections can be cleared through antibiotics or antifungals; other times, the IV must be removed completely so as not to create a greater risk for the child. This is where Leach comes in to advise on the best course of action.
“Making a difficult diagnosis and seeing a child get better and the family’s concerns melt away is the best part of my work—especially those who come here as a final effort after visiting other doctors. But on the other side of that, not being able to figure out what a patient has is really frustrating. I want to find an answer for everyone who comes in, but, unfortunately, I can’t,” he said.
With his focus primarily on his patients, Leach has had little time for his clinical research, but hopes to incorporate that more in coming years. In the past, his research has included studying tumors in pediatric AIDS patients. After 10 years with that focus, Leach is now looking into new things, namely how the bacteria present in one’s intestinal track may correlate with the presence of chronic diseases. He also hopes to
establish more clinics, such as a tuberculosis clinic and a travel clinic that can provide vaccinations to families traveling abroad.
Leach says his interest in research began at a very young age, when his parents first brought home the World Book Encyclopedia, and has been a big part of his life ever since. Drawn to medicine by this inquisitive nature, he attended medical school at the University of Utah and then spent six years at UCLA, where he completed his three-year residency and three additional years of sub-specialization in infectious disease. But it was his time at PLNU that gave him his first hands-on research experience and helped prepare him for continued medical study.
“Coming out of college with publications in peer reviewed literature isn’t something that happens very often, and it definitely helped me get into medical school and my residency program,” said Leach. “The dedication of the PLNU faculty—the quality research opportunities they offered and their commitment to getting students involved with research papers—is really what made my undergraduate experience so valuable.”
As adamant as Leach is about learning, he is equally passionate about passing on information to the rest of the medical community. He is currently on a committee for the Texas Pediatric Society that focuses on childhood immunizations and how to address problems, educate the public, and communicate with physicians regarding new vaccines. He and his wife, Robin (p. 29), are also members of Research Associates, an alumni auxiliary that secures research opportunities and resources for students and faculty in PLNU’s science program.
When people learn that David Arriola (09) is a graduate student pursuing degrees in medicine (M.D.) and divinity (M.Div.), their response is often inquisitive: How do you keep those two worlds separate?
“I always tell them ‘I wasn’t aware that I could,’” said Arriola. “My faith has everything to do with my work—my experience in medicine wouldn’t be the same without my personal convictions or the hope I have through my faith.”
Interested in medicine from a young age, Arriola came to PLNU as a pre-med student in 2005. Under the guidance of theology professors, like Dr. John Wright, and science professors, like Dr. David Cummings and Dr. Kerry Fulcher, he began to further explore the intersection of the natural and spiritual worlds and how they influence each other.
“There isn’t a conflict between science and faith or reason and faith, even though most people see them as worlds apart,” said Arriola. “There is this false dichotomy that exists that says faith is on one side and reason is on the other and that if you have faith and also try to reason then you’re not trusting God. I have learned that faith is a form of reasoning. Whether you’re religious or not, you have to have faith in something—you accept something as being true and work your way up from there. It’s this mindset that really influences how my life is ordered.”
Seeking to grow more as a Christian and physician and develop a greater understanding of how those areas overlap, Arriola enrolled at Duke University’s School of Medicine and School of Divinity in 2010, after receiving a full scholarship to attend.
Currently the only student at Duke enrolled in this six-year dual degree program, Arriola has completed two years of medical work, one classroom-based and the other in clinical training, and is in his second year of divinity school. Though transitioning between the two can be challenging, Arriola has found that the program setup lends itself well to creating a balanced perspective.
“Clinical year is the hardest; you experience your highest highs and lowest lows. Even though it’s incredibly rewarding to work with patients, it’s also very draining. Coming to divinity school after my clinical year really helped me deconstruct and reflect on that experience,” he said.
Looking forward, Arriola will be taking part in a hospital chaplaincy this summer, finishing up his divinity school coursework and medical research next year, and completing his clinical work for medical school in the final year. Though excited about what the next two years hold, he is also eager about life after school and the chance to bring his unique blend of training to the workplace. After participating in an internal medicine residency with a focus on infectious disease, he hopes to be in clinical practice in a teaching hospital. In addition to working with patients, his goal is to help educate medical students and residents on patient-centered care and the importance of moral formation in the medical field.