A proud Latina in science

Grace Milauskas
July 26, 2022
Shaaron Ochoa

Those who decide to venture down the path of science have different ways of getting to their destinations. For some, it is a personal experience with a family member, participating in programs during their undergraduate degree, or becoming a mentor for those like them; for Shaaron Ochoa, it was all three.

"My passion and appreciation for biomedical research started during my undergraduate career when I participated in intramural research during the academic year and extramural research experiences at Georgia Tech and the Medical University of South Carolina in research projects related to stem cell biology and chronic diseases prevalent in minority groups,” said Ochoa. “My undergraduate research experiences and my personal experiences in my family focused my research interests on cancer biology.”

Ochoa graduated in December 2016 from Fayetteville State University with a bachelor’s degree in biology. She was accepted as a Ph.D. candidate at MUSC, but a close family member unexpectedly received a cancer diagnosis. So, she decided to defer her acceptance for a year to be with family through a difficult time.

During her time away from graduate school, Ochoa worked with the RISE (Research Initiative for Scientific Enhancement) program for over a year as the interim coordinator, where the main goal was to help increase the number of underrepresented groups completing master’s or doctorate degrees in STEM and the biomedical science research careers. In addition, Ochoa has mentored students in the College of Graduate Studies programs Initiative for Maximizing Student Development (IMSD) and the Post-Baccalaureate Research Education Program (PREP). Both programs seek to increase the participation of under-represented groups in the biomedical sciences.

Currently, Ochoa is a fourth-year Ph.D. student in the lab of Anand Mehta, Ph.D. The lab is interested in elucidating clinically relevant cancer biomarkers through tissue-based glycan imaging in the context of protein N-glycosylation. In her project, she induces fatty liver disease and liver cancer in mouse models and seeks to identify disease-associated changes in N-linked glycosylation by utilizing some of the most novel N-glycobiology imaging techniques.

“I’m interested in identifying promising biomarkers for early and advanced liver diseases. I have had the pleasure to be a part of Dr. Mehta’s lab and have thrived in this collaborative environment, which entails close interactions with the labs of Dr. Richard Drake and Dr. Peggi Angel,” said Ochoa.

Ochoa published her first-author publication at the beginning of the year and is currently working on her second first-author publication. Ochoa is on track to defend and conclude her Ph.D. by spring 2023.

“I was born and raised in Cali, Colombia, and I am a proud Latina in science,” said Ochoa.

We asked Ochoa to share some of her thoughts about science and her MUSC experiences.

What drives your commitment to science?

My commitment to science is driven by the idea of being able to contribute to the biomedical field by addressing specific questions in the lab that one day can be translated into the clinic. I have first-hand experience of being in a situation where a loved one is diagnosed with cancer, and not being able to understand what and why this was happening was frustrating. This was a tipping point in my life that pushed me towards science and cancer research. I hope that one day my research can help address diseases that affect many and that are not well-understood.

How has your experience at MUSC and the College of Graduate Studies impacted your approach to science and opportunities for the future?

MUSC has provided me with many learning experiences, not only in the lab but also by offering outreach programs that have allowed me to interact with patients and understand how our work in the lab could help many in the clinic. In addition, the collaborative environment within the College of Graduate Studies and the MUSC Medical Center has opened the possibility for my research to have a clinically translational impact.

What advice would you give to current students?

Enjoy the process! Time goes by so fast, even more when we are so focused on learning and managing experiments simultaneously, but just remember to take time for yourself; things will work out in the end.

Going forward, what things do you think MUSC and CGS should be focusing on for the future?

Expanding their diversity outreach and trying to educate/train current faculty and administration on the importance of a diverse population in research and the clinic