Student Profile: Cancer, Auto Upholstery, and Grad School Prep--Mackenzie Roman's Roller Coaster Year

Curious to know what grad school is like?  Ask MCB senior Mackenzie Roman. Roman has been working in Dr. Ghassan Mouneimne’s Cellular and Molecular Medicine lab since August 2014.  Learning how to balance lab work, data analysis, and prepping for a presentation, she has prepping for graduate school under the guidance of CMM doctoral student and labmate Julieann Puleo.

Puleo knows the challenges of balancing school, research, and life, and she decided to give Roman, an aspiring cancer researcher, the opportunity to live the grad student life over winter break.

“We jokingly called it ‘grad school boot camp’,” Roman laughs. “It was really stressful, but I realized I can handle grad school. I know it will be challenging but also rewarding. Being able to overcome difficult tasks gives you a great sense of accomplishment.”

The proof?  She beams as she describes the positive reaction from Puleo and Mouneimne following her formal presentation of her research project to the lab.

“Julie told me she expected a grad school level presentation,” Roman’s eyes widen as she channels her initial nervousness, then triumph.  Mouneimne and Puleo “were really happy with the presentation. It went really well.”

Roman exhales and explains that with high expectations came “so much support from everyone. My PI [Mouneimne] really sets his students up for success. Julie has taken me to grad seminars so I could see what that’s like and helped me with getting ready for grad school applications, like a schedule for getting letters of recommendation and taking the GRE. If I hadn’t been in a lab and had this experience, I wouldn’t have known what to expect in grad school.”

Roman is no stranger to the unexpected.  She lost her mother in April 2017 to breast cancer. Her father passed away unexpectedly just four months later. Coping with the loss of both of their parents, Roman and her older sister faced yet another challenge: deciding the future of the family business.

“My mother was my biggest supporter,” Roman shares, “and I wanted to dedicate my life to studying this disease. I decided I would rather close the business than quit school.  But it’s also the last connection we have to our family—to keeping our parents’ souls alive.”

Roman’s gratitude is clear as she describes how her brother-in-law and sister saved the day, stepping in to run the business as the family decides on the long-term future of the local company, P & L Auto Upholstery.

She and her sister were not experts in auto upholstery, Roman explains, “but we have a very loyal customer base and don’t want to lose our connection to people we’ve known since we were little.”

Roman’s connection to fellow MCB students also has helped her to keep moving forward.

[MCB 301] was hard, but I loved it,” Roman enthuses. “I got to start meeting MCB students, and now I am a preceptor for the course with some of the students who were in class with me then. We formed study groups—that was fun and helped me to be more successful in my classes. You meet different people with different plans, but all really passionate about the courses.”

She credits Dr. Carol Dieckmann, who teaches MCB 301, Molecular Basis of Life, with getting her off to a good start in the required MCB courses.

“Carol is a really good instructor,” Roman adds. “She prepared us for the other upper division MCB courses like genetics and cell biology since we were taught how to approach difficult problems.”

A graduate of Mountain View High School, Roman got an early start in MCB as part of the Biotech Project through her biology teacher Lynne Cote.

“I took MCB 101 and 102,” she notes. “Ms. Cote made me realize you can do anything you put your mind to. She set us up for what we wanted to do in college.”

When Roman found out during high school that her mother’s breast cancer had returned, it led to her first experience in a UA lab—working with a grad student on an idea to make cancer cells glow.

“A grad student gave us HeLa cells and helped us,” Roman recalls. “Seeing the lab made me feel like this is what I wanted to do.”

As she prepares to finish up her undergraduate degree in December, Roman is hoping to stay at the University of Arizona.

“Knowing what I know, I would definitely pick UA for grad school,” she declares.

Knowing what she knows, Roman has this advice for students considering MCB:

“Don’t be discouraged,” she imparts. “I remember seeing calculus, physics, and I wasn’t really good at math. But it wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be—it’s doable. Once you start getting interested in your MCB classes, it makes it all worth it.”

Zoja Bazarnic
Publish Date: 
Feb 28, 2018