Inside USD

Perseverance Helps USD’s Sacknoff Overcome Challenges

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

sacknoff-photo“Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” — James 1: 2-4

Stefanie Sacknoff, reflecting her favorite biblical passage above, knows perseverance. She has lived 22 years because of it. A myriad of health issues since birth have tested her, but she has approached it all with a positive spirit.

The University of San Diego biochemistry major was honored as the recipient of the Overcoming Challenges Award from the American Chemical Society’s Women Chemists Committee at a luncheon during the 238th ACS National Meeting in Washington D.C.

“It was very nice to be recognized. It was a really big deal. There were 200 people there, and I had to speak,” Sacknoff said. “I met a lot of famous people in the industry, people who represented a lot of highly credible companies. They all made me feel like a celebrity. I sat at the front table with the (ACS) president, and I made some really great contacts.”

Also attending the Aug. 18 luncheon were Sacknoff’s mother, USD chemistry/biochemistry professors Tammy Dwyer, Debbie Tahmassebi and Jeremy Kua, and senior classmate Michelle Grau.

“There was a lot of pride in seeing her, in front of 200 very important people, tell her story,” Dwyer said. “She moved people. They will all remember her.”

Sacknoff suffered from aplastic anemia, a condition where bone marrow doesn’t produce sufficient new cells to replenish blood cells. As early as 8 months old, Sacknoff’s normal routine included weekly hospital visits for treatment. At age 8, she was diagnosed as legally blind (no peripheral vision). Before her sophomore year at USD, she was diagnosed with cancer of the bone marrow. In February 2007, she underwent a successful bone marrow transplant — thanks to a donor outside of her family — that required her to put college on hold and basically live in a Pasadena, Calif., hospital.

“I was 8 years old when I was really sick, and I was at the bottom of my disorder,” she said. Yet her desire, positive attitude and dreams were bigger. “God had a plan. I didn’t know it yet, but I felt I was going through all of this so I can be a doctor and can relate to the kids who are going through the same thing.”

She has been an inspirational speaker for the San Diego Blood Bank since high school, including a chance to speak with the San Diego Chargers football team about the importance of donating blood. Her presence at such meetings is aimed at helping put a face on the people they’re helping. She and her mother have recently started a non-profit organization called Perfect Match (www.perfectmatchproject.org) to raise awareness about the need for bone marrow donors.

Her education remains an important bridge to her career aspirations. Sacknoff, two classes shy of achieving senior student status, wants to graduate from USD in 2010 and is researching potential medical schools to attend.

Sacknoff said there were many instances in which she missed class time because of her frequent treatments. The San Diego native said she’s happy she came to USD. A general chemistry class her freshman year with James Bolender solidified a decision on her major area of study, but being at USD has been consistent in its support of her needs.

“I needed to be close to my doctors, my mom and my support system,” she said. “USD has been the best fit for me with its smaller class sizes and the fact that every class is taught by a professor. The people here are some of the most helpful people I’ve ever met. They’ve made a lot of accommodations for me. I don’t think I would have been as successful at other places.”

Dwyer told Sacknoff about the ACS award opportunity. Dwyer said she wasn’t planning to attend the ACS conference, but when Sacknoff won the award, Dwyer was thrilled to attend.

“She’s so remarkable,” said Dwyer, who has been one of Sacknoff’s professors and oversaw her during a research project. “It’s inspiring working with someone with so much drive. She’s a tremendous person.”

— Ryan T. Blystone

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