Theresa Cantu '10, the making of a scientist in marine biology

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Theresa Cantu '10 at Mote Center for Shark Research in Sarasota, Fla., in summer 2010

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(Jan. 25, 2011)--Upon graduation from Earl Warren High School, native San Antonian Theresa Cantu '10 had an undetermined career path. She enrolled at Northwest Vista College (NVC) in the music and pre-med classes she thought she would like, but they bored her. The concepts were familiar and repetitive, and she yearned for something new.

Eventually, she crossed paths with NVC biological sciences professor Brian Stout. He urged her to consider a career in scientific research and invited her to collaborate with him on a research project.

Through NVC's Sustaining Talent in Education to Launch Learning and Research in Science, Engineering and Math (STELLAR) program, Cantu began assisting Stout, who was researching the correlation between the brain's serotonin 5H2C receptors and obesity, anxiety and depression. The experience gave her a taste of scholarly life.

"Dr. Stout gave me the push I needed to go into science," she said.

As Cantu neared her transfer to UTSA, a friend urged her to continue her research training by applying to the UTSA MARC-U*STAR program, also known as Minority Access to Research Careers -- Undergraduate Student Training for Academic Research or MARC. Funded by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, the training program helps outstanding UTSA juniors and seniors majoring in biology, chemistry, mathematics, statistics, computer science and engineering fine-tune their research and leadership skills to prepare for success in doctoral programs.

Cantu applied and, in the process, she met Gail Taylor, assistant program director of the UTSA MARC-U*STAR and MBRS-RISE programs. Taylor is a well-known mentor to UTSA science students seeking training to prepare for graduate programs. Taylor allowed Cantu to participate in the 2008 Summer Research Experience for Pre-Meds, a summer program funded by the San Antonio Area Foundation's Semp Russ Foundation. She performed research in the infectious diseases laboratory of G. Jilani Chaudry, UTSA assistant professor of cellular and molecular biology. Under his supervision, Cantu would research anthrax toxin receptors and their role in anthrax toxin entry.

In fall 2008, Cantu transferred to UTSA as a junior majoring in biology. She chose to continue her research with Chaudry and remained in the MARC program during her junior and senior years, growing tremendously as a scientist and scholar. In addition to providing training opportunities, MARC helped Cantu attend research conferences in California, Florida and San Antonio.

"While I was in MARC, I was able to network with scientists from around the world and gain technical skills needed for graduate school," said Cantu. "It definitely gave me an edge over the competition."

In summer 2010, Cantu was accepted into the Mote Marine Laboratory Summer Research Program and was placed in a marine biomedical research laboratory at the Mote Center for Shark Research in Sarasota, Fla. While at Mote, she researched human cells and shark cells to better understand why shark cells are so much more effective at providing immunities against tumors.

"My summer research was lots of fun," said Cantu. "And it introduced me to marine science."

On Sat., Dec. 18, 22-year-old Cantu crossed the UTSA commencement stage to receive her bachelor's degree in biology. But her work is hardly over.

She is in the midst of a competitive application process expected to last through late February. Determined to study marine biotechnology, she has applied to top graduate programs on both coasts. Her first choice is UCSD's Scripps Institute of Oceanography, the Holy Grail for graduate students interested in marine science careers.

Ultimately, Cantu may settle down in an academic career. Or, she may open her own research and development company to commercialize marine biomedical technologies. Either way, she is certain to accomplish great things.