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stories - through Feb 2016

Alumna Casandra Sowash '15, BS Chemistry, describes her incredible journey from poverty to Ph.D. candidate

My academic career has faced many challenges, namely poverty and ignorance. My mother raised me as a single parent in a rural town of 3000 in Calaveras County and we were very poor. Traditional gender roles were expected and deviation was met with hostility and isolation. Despite taking the most advanced classes offered by my high school and graduating a year early, my drive, aptitude and 3.8 grade point average was moot in light of my expected traditional role in the home. As the first person to go to college in my family, we did not know that someone like me could have secured scholarship or support to attend a four year institution and live on campus. My aspiring to be a scientist was met with disgust. Science and higher education was a topic removed from daily life, there wasn’t even a bus than ran to a college of any kind.

After graduating from Calaveras high school in 2004 I was unable to go to college right away because I lacked a means of transportation to the nearest junior college an hour and a half away. Instead, I began working 40 hours a week while taking distance learning courses until I could save up enough money to purchase a car. With keys finally in hand, I was able to attend classes at the junior college, but still had to work to pay for my car, food, and tuition. While attending chemistry classes at the junior college, my excellence in lab earned me the opportunity to work in the chemistry stock room. In addition to my full time job, I worked part time in the stock room to build up enough experience to apply for a better technical position. I always wanted to be a chemist so it was exciting to finally have an opportunity to advance my career in that direction.

When my stepfather was diagnosed with cancer, my family needed not only financial support but emotional support as well. Placing my education on hold, I exchanged my two jobs with a full time position in the chemical industry as a technician to support them. With only my experience and my high school diploma however, advancement was limited. Working with different companies in industry gave me the opportunity to work under scientists with different levels of graduate education. The problems we encountered were intellectual and satisfying unlike anything I encountered as a technician. I wanted the kind of career with those problems.

When my stepfather lost his battle with cancer in 2011, I took the opportunity to enroll at Santa Clara University’s chemistry program with the ultimate goal of continuing my education to obtain a PhD. Before the program began in September 2012 however, I underwent surgery to remove my newly discovered stage 0 cancer. While healthy, I continue to be closely monitored to ensure the cancer does not return.

I continued to work full time to support myself financially while being a full time student at Santa Clara University. Starting work at 4:00am made it possible to get 8 hours in before classes started most days. In 2013, I was awarded the Priscilla Carney Jones Scholarship by the American Chemical Society.

To bridge the gap from a technician to a graduate student, I needed to broaden my research perspective. I participated in undergraduate research in both the Abbyad lab at Santa Clara University and a bioinorganic lab at San Jose State University. While my schedule was ambitious, I graduated from Santa Clara University in 3 years by utilizing what transfer credits I could and taking classes every summer.

I was no longer the small town girl with a dream of being a scientist. I figured out how to “college” and am now a PhD student at UC Santa Cruz in the physical/inorganic chemistry program. The day before graduating from SCU, I finally got to quit my full time technician job in industry. Starting in July, I began working at UCSC in the Zhang lab until my program officially starts in the fall.

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