Sac State Magazine is a publication produced by the Office of Advancement Communications and Stewardship at Cal State University, Sacramento highlighting alumni, students, faculty and staff.
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Bacteria beware With help from campus, a budding biologist is making food safer W hile most college students dream of spending summer traveling Europe with friends or renting a house on the beach and kicking back, Antonio Cervantes pictured his own personal paradise: a biology lab with petri dishes of salmonella and cholera bacteria. Cervantes' lab of choice happened to be 7,900 miles from Sac State at Mahidol University in Bangkok, Thailand. Cervantes was selected to participate in the International Research Education for Undergraduates-Microbiology summer internship, a highly selective program run through the University of Wisconsin. Among hundreds of applicants across the U.S., just seven students were tabbed to participate and the majority of those had Wisconsin ties. "The fact that they considered a student from out of state, I feel very honored," Cervantes says. The path less travelled Cervantes isn't the stereotypical biology phenom although he has memories of looking through medical textbooks in grade school and drilling his father—a former medical school student—with questions. "I barely knew what a cell was, but I would read these books," he says. "I learned very quickly because I would ask a lot of questions, but I wasn't committed to it." Cervantes dabbled in journalism and psychology, waited tables and dealt cards before a junior college course in microbiology reignited his childhood passion for biology. Inspired, he joined campus organizations, including the Science Educational Equality program and the Student Association of Lab Scientists and was named a Sutter Healthcare Scholar. He also found inspiration in biology professor Susanne Lindgren, to whom he expressed his interest in research. "She's been a great teacher and mentor," Cervantes says of Lindgren. "I've grown as a student and a person and she's been a very Antonio Cervantes 16 SAC STATE M AGA Z I N E | Fall 2013 strong, guiding influence since I got here." A team effort The epic summer of learning and exploration in Thailand nearly didn't happen. Cervantes got word in April—about a month before his departure date—that the National Science Foundation would not be issuing stipends for the students as it had in years past. He needed to come up with more than $4,000. When professors and leadership in the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, Student Affairs and University Advancement learned of his dilemma, they went into action. In short order, they secured a combination of funds, including a Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation scholarship and a stipend from the Sac State Annual Fund. "I was pretty scared when I got the email saying the grant was denied," Cervantes says. "Dr. Gonzalez-Orta and a lot of others worked hard to get me over there and I'm extremely grateful." "He was accepted into a really competitive program and we thought he would represent Sac State and the Science Education Equality program well," Enid Gonzalez-Orta says. The payoff Cervantes made sure the opportunity was not squandered. The internship was much like a full-time research position. Cervantes spent at least 40 hours a week in a lab, setting up experiments with salmonella and cholera bacteria. "I chose a lab in Thailand that would make me a better candidate in the future," he says. "I worked with salmonella and cholera. It was a really great experience to be on my own and independent. I was eventually able to do my own project, isolating bacteriophage of Vibrio cholerae. "To be able to design an experiment and build it from the ground up—that was a big breakthrough." During his down time Cervantes didn't venture out a lot, but he got a chance to visit one of the world's most beautiful beaches in Kata. He also enjoyed seeking out authentic Thai cuisine. "I didn't find anything too spicy, but it was all delicious," he says. After graduating next spring, Cervantes is hoping to be admitted to one of California's highly competitive clinical lab scientist programs. Ultimately, he would like to conduct research full time and fulfill the vision he had when he first tapped into his specialty.