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Christian doing research at UConn Health through the Health Career Opportunity Programs

Christian Caceres has an upbeat outlook on his experiences with UConn and a deep appreciation for the opportunities he has had here. With the help of his advisor, Dr. Hedley Freake, Christian was able to complete his honors, pre-med and degree requirements a semester early. He chose to spend his last semester studying abroad in Granada, Spain, where he completed a 240-hour medical internship. When Christian returns from Spain, he will be giving the student speech at the 2017 CAHNR commencement. Here is what Christian has to say.

What attracted you to UConn? I was attracted to UConn’s large size and student population. In my sophomore year of high school, I moved from San Diego, California to Essex, Connecticut, where my new school was a fraction of the size. Though it was a great high school, I found that the smaller population size produced social challenges, such as cliques. I knew that a word like “popular” wouldn’t exist at a larger school like UConn, so I had to go.

What is your major, and why did you choose it? I am a nutritional sciences (NUSC) major, but selecting my major was quite the project in my first semester of college. I came into UConn as a chemistry major but quickly switched into molecular and cell biology (MCB) because I felt that it offered the practicality of biological systems that I craved. However, I ended up switching again from MCB into NUSC. I knew that NUSC would offer me the knowledge I needed to live a healthy life that involved proper nutrition and exercise.

More importantly, ever since I was sixteen years old, I have wanted to become a cardiologist or cardiothoracic surgeon. Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, and a lot of it stems from lifestyle factors, such as poor dietary habits. I figured NUSC would provide me with a breadth of knowledge that I could someday take into my own medical practice to deliver well-rounded care.

Which one of your UConn activities, internships or jobs was the most memorable? Why? It is hard for me to pick just one memorable experience because I have been afforded multiple amazing opportunities here at UConn. However, my experience with the Student Support Services program (SSS) has been unforgettable and even more fulfilling than I had originally anticipated. SSS is a program for first-generation, underrepresented and/or low-income students. It is the reason that I was admitted into UConn, despite having lost my way and suffering poor grades early on in my high school career. When I got to UConn and learned how to succeed from SSS, I didn’t let the opportunity go to waste. I ended up serving as an SSS STEM tutor, where all of my different loves just meshed. I taught science to students who were so willing to learn in order to succeed, and I mentored them in their academic and personal endeavors. I was able to give back to an amazing program that had given me the tools for success and the chance to prove myself at a top university.

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Christian presenting his research at the Experimental Biology conference in San Diego, CA

Name two other experiences that have enriched your studies. Conducting research with Dr. Ji-Young Lee in NUSC has been one of the most challenging, yet rewarding, experiences throughout my undergraduate career. Dr. Lee gave me a position in her molecular nutrition lab at the end of my freshman year. From there, she allowed me to conduct experiments, make my own mistakes and even undertake my own research project. I am so grateful for my time in her lab. I learned to read things critically, corroborate sources, have patience and focus on the long-term objective.

Another major highlight in my career at UConn was the opportunity to serve as an undergraduate biochemistry teaching assistant for Dr. Mary Bruno. I love teaching, and I wanted to make sure that students would find my review sessions helpful. Getting in front of over fifty students on a weekly basis was fun for me, and being able to review biochemistry content for the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) while helping others in the course made for a great experience.

What was the biggest challenge in your UConn career? Although I have been successful in my academic career, I found it difficult to balance work, classes, research, a social life and other extracurricular activities. For a time, I became too fixated on academia, and I was sacrificing the social experiences that UConn had to offer. The biggest challenge was finding a balance where I could thrive academically and still have a fun college experience. With the help of my best friends, I was able to find that balance.

When do you expect to graduate? What then? I am currently in Spain, but I plan to return to graduate with my friends and family by my side. After graduation, I would like to leave UConn the way I came in by giving back to SSS in their summer program. After the program ends, I hope to conduct research in a lab at the UConn Health Center during my gap year. I am hoping to enter medical school in fall 2018.ChristianCaceres

Is there anything else you would like us to know about you? I would not have been able to study abroad without the financial support of multiple offices and programs on campus including the Rowe Scholars Program, Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP), SSS, Education Abroad and CAHNR.

I loved my UConn experience because I never backed down from a challenge. I took advantage of the opportunities the school afforded me. From being a Resident Assistant to conducting research, tutoring and mentoring, I have gained so much. I am taking all these enriching experiences with me to medical school and beyond. If you are reading this, know that you, too, can thrive at UConn and do everything you have ever wanted to do. It all depends on how badly you want it.

By: Michelle Sarta