55 Minutes by Bike: NAC Student Alex Aguilar Is Pedaling Toward a Brighter Future
Nicholas Academic Centers’ student Alex Aguilar, a senior at Godinez Fundamental High School in Santa Ana, has turned his interest in the medical profession into a significant research opportunity at UC Irvine, working closely with Dr. Young Jik Kwon on the study of gene therapy. Driven by his desire to make the most of his time and give back to his community, Alex rides his bicycle 46 miles round trip between Santa Ana and UC Irvine three to four days a week to participate in the ongoing research internship. Like the paths he traces throughout Orange County, Alex’s journey to this point has taken some interesting turns along the way.
During his sophomore year, Alex fell into a routine of passing the hours on Saturdays at the AMC movie theatre in Orange, but more out of boredom than of love for the cinema. While the big screen held his interest early on, Alex couldn’t help feeling his time could be better spent. “I would ask myself, ‘is this what I want to do for the rest of my high school career?’” One Saturday, discouraged by the prospect of spending another Saturday and another $11 in the theater, Alex rode his bike past the Garden Grove Hospital Medical Center and decided to drop in. Dressed in a Ramones shirt, skinny jeans, and a pair of Chucks, Alex approached a nurse at the front desk and asked about volunteer opportunities. The volunteer coordinator was not available, so Alex returned the following day to speak to him and pick up an application. When Alex arrived, the coordinator told him that there were no openings for volunteers, but he still gave Alex an application. After school the next day, wearing a Led Zeppelin shirt, Alex visited the Medical Center for the third time, this time to submit his volunteer application along with a resume and cover letter. Before Alex could walk out the door, the coordinator called him back to talk about attending an orientation, which he did two weeks later. Despite the odds, Alex was in.
Soon, Alex found himself looking forward to Friday nights so that he could put in another four hours volunteering at the Medical Center. Although the hours passed slowly at first, it wasn’t long before Alex found himself busy helping nurses and translating for doctors, sharing information with Spanish-speaking patients and their families. Translating symptoms and remedies to educate patients has also proven educational for Alex. While he originally committed to volunteer for four hours per week during the school year, Alex upped his service to eight hours or more every Saturday during the summer. “Time was not an issue for me there. I would look at the clock at one, and before I knew it, it would be seven and I would have to take a break. I just like the environment, working with people, and getting to know the world outside of my bubble.” Alex admits that one of the incentives to start early took the form of free lunch, but he also enjoyed the satisfaction of giving back to his community.
Because of his willingness to help and his sincere interest in the health profession, Alex soon became a favorite volunteer at the Medical Center. “Some of the nurses would tell me that a lot of volunteers sit around and text, but I told them it’s not an issue with me because I don’t even have a phone.” An EMT (Emergency Medical Technician), who also instructs the EMT class for the ROP program, suggested that Alex consider taking the course. Alex realized that he would have to sacrifice other extra-curricular activities such as sports, but he ultimately decided to pursue his medical interests with total dedication. He soon enrolled in an introductory ROP “Medical Core” program, and he earned a CPR certification and learned the necessary medical jargon. The course also helped him get ahead in AP Biology.
Back at school, Alex founded a Bio-Medical Research club to help raise awareness about Bio-Medical issues, which he feels are often overlooked in the media. “It seems to me that people tend to focus more on politics than what’s actually going on in the health fields, so I founded the club.” The club advisor, Ms. Fiedler, encouraged Alex to apply for an internship at UC Irvine. Dr. Young Jik Kwon visited the Godinez Campus and reached out to potential recruits, promising the unique opportunity to do college-level research with undergrad students at UC Irvine. Alex attended the packed presentation, but didn’t decide to apply until four days later. “At first it seemed like too much work. I had AP classes and a lot of homework, but I kept the application in my folder. Every time I opened the folder, there was the application. I purposely did that because I didn’t want to just forget about it.” So what finally made Alex decide to go for it? “I came across the list of names of applicants, and it just kept growing, which sparked some competitive side of me. Also, Ms. Fiedler gave me an extra push by writing a letter of recommendation, and the staff at the Medical Center encouraged me to do it.”
For the weeklong program at UC Irvine, only four students were accepted from Godinez Fundamental High School, including Alex; other schools involved in the program include Magnolia High School in Anaheim and Estancia High School in Costa Mesa. Participating students ranged in grade level from freshmen to seniors. The program served as an introductory course on gene therapy, and Alex and the other students learned to use pipettes, how to culture cells, to apply various formulas for counting cells, and about gene therapy’s various applications, including one in which Cancer cells are shut down. The students also performed experiments to better understand how gene therapy works. Alex notes that the program offered students access to expensive equipment that they likely wouldn’t get the opportunity to work with outside of the program. Alex adds with a laugh, “The program also provided free food. The best food is free food.”
At the conclusion of the program, Dr. Kwon mentioned that two students would be selected to continue working at UC Irvine. The selection depended on Dr. Kwon’s perception of the students’ enthusiasm, involvement, and enjoyment of the work, as well as recommendations from the undergrads that worked alongside the high school students. A week before school started, Alex received an email informing him of his acceptance. “I saw the message. I clicked on it super fast and time went so slowly, waiting for the email to open. When I opened it, it confirmed that I was chosen. When I told the hospital crew, they were so excited for me.” The only thing standing in Alex’s way was transportation. How would he get to UC Irvine from Godninez at least three to four days every week?
Luckily, Alex offset his departure from sports with another form of exercise that would ultimately play a major part in his ability to participate in the research program. Alex started riding his bike on weekends, traveling at first from 17th Street in Santa Ana to Yorba Linda and back (fourteen miles each way) before extending the trip to include a ride in the opposite direction down the riverbed to PCH (an addition of approximately 13 miles round trip). During the rides, Alex would listen to podcasts of “The Naked Scientists,” hosted by Dr. Chris Smith of Cambridge University. Over time, Alex made the trip in less and less time. All of this helped make Alex’s two-wheel commute to UC Irvine do-able. He now makes the 23-mile one-way trip in 55 minutes. The same is true for his return trip.
For the internship, Alex works with a polysaccharide called “Chitosan”, which is known to attract bacteria. The idea is to incorporate Chitosan into cells to serve as an anti-biotic. Although Chitosan is used in various capacities, Alex and his team hope their research will further its applications. “So far, we’ve been diluting the chitosan so that we can work with it, using the proper MP ratio.” Alex is hoping to present his team’s findings at a major science fair in the spring of next year.
In addition to the time he dedicates to his high school studies and doing research at UC Irvine, not to mention his hours in the NAC, Alex continues to volunteer at the Garden Grove Hospital Medical Center and to date has accrued more than 500 volunteer hours. This will come in handy as he works his way through school toward his goal of becoming an Emergency Room Physician.