Getting Ahead: PURE Opportunity Propels Samantha Calac '20

When you know what you want to do for a living, the last thing you want to do is wait. Samantha Calac, an incoming first-year student at the University of San Diego, wants to be a doctor. Right now, sure, she's eager for next weekend’s OLÉ! Weekend, the university's four-day orientation program. She's ready for classes to begin and to move along on her path.

So it should come as no surprise that Calac's summer has been spent familiarizing herself with the USD campus, gaining new knowledge, meeting and seeking advice from older students as the youngest person working in the research laboratory of Jena Hales, an assistant professor in USD's psychological sciences department.

Seizing Opportunity

Calac was selected for USD’s Pre-Undergraduate Research Experience (PURE) summer program. PURE has given Calac the chance to actively participate on Hales' research project alongside current students. Calac, and other PURE students, live on campus, get acclimated to the college environment, and, overall, get a head start on their journey.

"It shows I'm dedicated from the start,” said Calac of her PURE participation. “I have a passion for what I'm doing and being career-oriented is on my mind. From a young age, I've definitely wanted to get going, even before I got into college. It's been really nice to have this experience this summer because it makes me a stronger applicant when I apply for medical school. It may seem like a long time from right now, but it's good to have that upper hand. I know a lot of people won't have this prior experience."

Indeed, Calac's PURE opportunity adds to an impressive resume she's building. The summer before her senior year at San Diego's Cathedral Catholic High School, Calac did an internship at the National Institute of Health in Bethesda, Md. She worked in the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, which "seeks fundamental knowledge about the brain and nervous system and to use that knowledge to reduce the burden of neurological disease."

Her individual experience at NIH centered on hippocampal memory testing on rats. At USD she's been assisting in Hales' lab but there are some differences and there's been a big focus on learning new techniques. Hales, who just completed her first full year as a USD professor, had eight students in her lab this summer, including Calac and two USD Summer Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE) students. While initially hesitant to take on so many students as she was just setting up her lab, Calac's application and previous experience stood out.

"Samantha's personal statement was excellent, compelling, and she had prior research experience doing behavioral testing and memory testing in rodents. I thought she'd be a good fit,” Hales said. “She has the big-picture experience of understanding the background of these kinds of studies, understanding why you do memory testing and how you look at memory in rats. And, since we were setting up the lab, the initial stuff is what she got to do and that's what she had less experience with, more of the hands-on, technical lab benchwork, sectioning brain tissue and mounting brain tissue and even chemistry, where we'd look for different marks in the tissue."

Hales added that a new pilot study is underway, so Calac was able to shadow more experienced student researchers and ask questions.

"I liked how she was asking questions, using the other students as a resource,” Hales said. “They were very willing to show and teach her things and she's been very receptive to it. I think the more you get out of something is based on the more you put yourself out there."

Inspired by Family, Inspiring Community

Calac’s desire to be in the medical field has been inspired by her own family. Her father, Dan, is a pediatrician and serves as the chief medical officer for the local Indian Health Council.

"I've always wanted to be a doctor because of him, seeing his work ethic and how hard he works. He's so passionate about his job and that’s something I've always admired," she said.

Her brother, Alec, 21, is another role model. He just graduated from the University of Arizona with a neuroscience degree in two concentrations, cognitive science and cellular and molecular biology and a minor in biochemistry. He's working at the same NIH building that Samantha did.

"It's really nice to have him as a motivator,” Samantha said. “He encourages me, saying that I should be doing this."

Another influence is the community in which she and her family are part of, the Pauma Band of Luiseño Indians. She has witnessed the respect that the community has for her father, seeing him as a leader. His success, coupled with what's developing for Alec and now Samantha serves as inspiration for community members to find their passion, for academics and other opportunities.

Calac wants to learn and to succeed. The PURE program has been a great early step forward on her path.

"I definitely see myself continuing on with this type of research so it's been really interesting to see everything add up," she said of this summer experience. "Once you learn more, you understand more fully what this is all about. It puts meaning behind all of the words being spoken. It's so interesting to see everything add upon each other, from what I did last summer to what I'm doing now and see that growth."

— Ryan T. Blystone

Contact Information

Office of Undergraduate Research
UMO Room 100N
5998 Alcalá Park
San Diego, CA 92110

Phone: (619) 260-7840
Fax: (619) 849-8390