Inside USD

National Award Bolsters Blanco’s USD Experience

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Alexander Blanco arrived at the University of San Diego a few years ago as a living dichotomy.

He came to San Diego via Washington to do what was right as a son. At the behest of his brother, he came south to help provide long-term care for their ailing father. All the while, Alex was married to his high school sweetheart who was in her final year of PhD classes at Washington State University and with whom he has three children.

Somehow, for a year, the couple made the separation work. Alex applied, received scholarships and got into USD as a transfer student. He went back to Washington a few times to spend time with his own family — “I made it to sporting events and birthdays,” he said — but he knew this couldn’t continue.

The day after USD’s final exams ended last May, he went back to Washington to help his wife move the family to San Diego. His wife now teaches at San Diego Mesa Community College while finishing up her dissertation. Their children, ages 17, 13 and 9, are in school, the oldest now looking at colleges. Alex, 36, a combat veteran who served 10 years in the U.S. Marine Corps, is a junior marine science major and Spanish minor who is expected to graduate in 2016.

Rewarding Researcher

This month, in what seems like a reward for the effort Blanco put into balancing everything, he was named one of 10 recipients for a national Council on Undergraduate Research (CUR) Geosciences Division Award of Excellence in Student Research.

Though Blanco said he was “shocked” to win this honor, the least surprised were those at USD who’ve supported him and have been inspired by his determination.

“Alex tackles challenges with curiosity, enthusiasm and ability — and he never complains. He is a role model to his peers and he appreciates and acknowledges their contributions as researchers. He makes science engaging, understandable and enjoyable for everyone,” said Shelley Barajas-Leyva, director for USD’s TRiO McNair Scholars program, which Blanco belongs, too. “Our staff was not surprised when he won the award. We are proud of him and his scholarly abilities. Alex is a genuine, hard-working, humble and inspirational leader with a great sense of humor.”

It was Blanco’s faculty mentor, Marine Science Professor Drew Talley, who offered him the chance to work on a research project focused on the increasingly common occurrence of Manila clams in Southern California estuaries. The work Blanco did was physically demanding, academically challenging and highly intriguing scientifically. He accepted the research task without hesitation and has thrived.

“This work would literally not have been completed without Alex’s hard work,” Talley said. “He tackled a field- and lab-intensive project that sheds new light on an invasive species’ spread in San Diego’s Mission Bay, the results of which have now been accepted for publication in an international journal.”

Blanco’s reliability and ability to balance impressed Talley. “He managed this in addition to his duties as a father, husband and as an undergraduate taking a full class load of difficult courses. Amazingly, he has done all of this with incredibly good cheer.”

So when the opportunity to nominate a student for the CUR award arose, USD Marine Science Professor Bethany O’Shea submitted Blanco’s name with full endorsement of department colleagues.

“Alex is an exceptional researcher, leader, and role model for his peers,” O’Shea’s recommendation said. “He is incredibly driven, takes initiative, works independently, and is dogged. He did ‘ridiculous’ amounts of difficult fieldwork, volunteered to do additional fieldwork on other projects, and then spent many a late night and weekend processing samples and working up data. We believe Alexander represents the mission and values of our institution with both pride and honor and it is with great pleasure that the Department of Marine Science and Environmental Studies nominate him for the award.”

Making a Difference

The CUR honor deepened the immense respect Blanco has for USD, for donors who provided scholarship support and the unwavering support of Talley, Barajas-Leyva, and many others.

“When my wife and I found out, it was a shock, but it’s such an honor,” he said. “To know you have a whole department backing you is heartwarming. To work hard for a guy who led you to the project, to get recognized, and for my mentor to say I helped with his research and this is acknowledgement for those late nights in the lab and being away from my family, it is so cool to have a professor who does that.”

Blanco stays active at USD. He participated in activities with University Ministry and is a student mentor at Mark Twain High School and Montgomery Middle School through the Center for Awareness, Service and Action (CASA). He is the president of USD’s Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) chapter and has sought to make the latter more inclusive on campus.

“It’s an organization that provides opportunities for minorities in science,” Blanco said of SACNAS, “but if they want diversity, they too have to open their doors. It needs to be every color of the rainbow so everyone can be present.”

Next up for Blanco are summer research presentations at the UC Berkeley McNair Symposium and UC San Diego Research Conference as well as SACNAS’ national conference this October in Los Angeles. Opportunities through McNair Scholars and SACNAS are pointing him to graduate school and, potentially, as a college professor. He admires Talley’s mentoring, likes to work with others, enjoys having his family back together and continues to care for his father.

Blanco looks at the research work he’s done and can compare it favorably with the tough decision he made a few years ago.

“Digging clams for months on end was hard work. It was physical labor. It put a toll on my body and on the family when I’m spending time away from them. But, at the end of a day’s work, you’re doing it to make things better. You’re working for something that’s bigger than you. The research at Mission Bay is to restore a balance between human involvement and getting back to nature. I was sore for a few days, but in the long run, it’s going to make a big impact — not just for the research, but for future generations.”

Blanco’s work and the CUR recognition enhance USD’s national visibility as a top undergraduate research institution and also to prospective students.

“I think this is another great example of the increasing recognition USD is garnering in the research community and, perhaps more importantly, a testament to the power of combining research, undergraduate education and mentoring,” Talley said. “The fact that USD and the College support these efforts so strongly, from the dean’s office to department staff, makes me certain that stories like Alex’s will be more common going forward.”

— Ryan T. Blystone

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