2007 Grads: Profiles in excellence

Steve Fisch Photography

Quetzalsol Chacon-Lopez

Steve Fisch Photography

Laura Almstead

Steve Fisch Photography

Lance Okeke

Steve Fisch Photography

Eszter Vladar

Steve Fisch Photography

Christopher “Casey” Brown

Steve Fisch Photography

Amy Chow

On June 16 at 1:30 p.m., the School of Medicine will hold commencement for 195 students receiving MDs, PhDs and MS degrees in the biosciences. Here are profiles of six.

Name: Quetzalsol Chacon-Lopez

Degree: MD

Passion: Underserved communities

Undergraduate: University of Washington

Next: Residency in emergency medicine, UC-San Francisco at Fresno

Bridging the cultural divide between Mexico and the United States comes naturally to Quetzalsol Chacon-Lopez, who he was born in Bellingham, Wash., but raised in Mexico City.

He began building bridges while he was still an undergraduate student at the University of Washington. He started a Web site, www.PremedOfColor.org, and later co-founded a conference inspired by his visit to Stanford and SUMMA, the Stanford University Minority Medical Alliance, to encourage minority students interested in a career in medicine.

He came to Stanford to get his medical degree with the goal of providing care for underserved people. He said he's had the best of all worlds here, with top-notch training and the opportunity to manage the Arbor Free Clinic in Menlo Park.

"Stanford is right in the middle of the Bay Area, which is really diverse," said Lopez, who is known as "Sol" to his friends. "I wanted to move to California, because I wanted to work with more Mexican Americans and other Latin Americans,'' as well as other underserved communities. "This was the perfect spot."

He made a one-year digression to earn an MPH from Harvard University, and after graduation he'll head to a residency in emergency medicine at UC-San Francisco at Fresno. That will put him close to the area where his grandmother was a farmworker when she first came to California.

Eventually he hopes to settle in San Diego, working in border health care. "I can speak the language," he said. —Donna Alvarado

Name: Laura Almstead

Degree: PhD

Passion: Viruses, academic science

Undergraduate: Williams College, 2001

Next: Postdoctoral work at Yale University

One of the things that attracted Laura Almstead to Stanford was its reputation for being hospitable to women scientists. Her mother is a professor of computer science, so she knew many of the struggles women have experienced in the scientific world.

But once here, what gave her a mission was her encounter with poliovirus in the lab of Peter Sarnow, PhD. "My dad's father had poliomyelitis when he was a child and was actually in an iron lung for six months," Almstead said. "So poliovirus had this very personal connection for me."

She's come a long way since she arrived at Stanford in 2001, fresh out of Williams College with a chemistry degree. After six years of graduate work, with her doctoral thesis under her belt, she is wiser to the way of research. "I have better self-confidence and better development as a thinking researcher, understanding what is the next questions to ask," she said. "Peter's lab has really helped train me in this way."

A postdoctoral fellowship at Yale University is next in Almstead's career path. She knows she wants to stay in academia, and yes, she's a bit worried about the state of federal funding for research. "But I'm trying not to let it scare me off," she said. "I hope it is something that will improve and I also know that ultimately this is what I want to do. If it is hard, it's hard. If I have to fight for it, I'll fight for it." —Mitzi Baker

Name: Lance Okeke

Degree: MD

Passion: Community medicine

Undergraduate: Xavier University of Louisiana

Next: Residency in internal medicine, Duke University

In his junior year at Xavier University of Lousiana, Lance Okeke, 25, remembers his grandfather coming to him and asking him about the autoimmune disease lupus.

"I had a cousin diagnosed with lupus at 13 and my uncle's second wife died of lupus. My grandfather asked me, 'What's this lupus thing? Aren't you pre-med or something?'"

That sparked Okeke's interest in immunology, and eventually led to a summer internship in immunology research at Stanford in 2001. He was hooked.

"I pretty much fell in love," he said, enthralled with Stanford, with the West Coast, with medical research. Still it took some convincing to get his mom on board with the idea of medical school so far from home.

Okeke comes from a large, close family. Born in Boston, he moved to his parents' native Nigeria for six years as a kid before settling in Marietta, Ga. It was the years in Nigeria that spurred him into medicine. His large Nigerian family suffered from a lack of medical resources. A cousin died from typhoid fever and a 75-year-old aunt died from complications of AIDS after being misdiagnosed.

He entered Stanford medical school in 2002 intent on becoming a researcher. Five years later, Okeke's focus has changed. He wants to be a community doctor.

"I'll be going back to the South," he said, to a residency in internal medicine at Duke University Medical Center, about 30 minutes away from his mother's current home in North Carolina. —Tracie White

Name: Eszter Vladar

Degree: PhD

Passion: Genetics

Undergraduate: UC-Davis

Next: Starting postdoctoral training

Eszter Vladar has known since she was 14 years old she wanted to do biology research. A discussion about cellular organelles during her honors biology class so piqued her interest that she determined right there that she would pursue a PhD in genetics.

"I don't know how well-informed I was at age 14, but I carried through with the plans," she said.

The Hungarian-born Vladar, whose family moved to Maryland when she was 12, spent her high school summers and college years doing research. She opted to do graduate work at Stanford after touring schools and being most impressed with the program here. She said the researchers seemed excited about their work yet didn't seem too stressed or competitive.

Vladar wound up in the lab of Tim Stearns, PhD, where she has been studying the mechanism through which specialized cells called ciliated epithelial cells are able to make hundreds of cilia. It's clear she has enjoyed her research, and she likens her experience to spending time on an "enormous, expensive playground," but she also acknowledged it's been a lot of work. She's barely had a free weekend in years.

Vladar will continue her postdoctoral training after working in the lab this summer. It recently occurred to her that her future is not unlike a musician trying to make a living out of music. "I'm trying to make a career out of a hobby, too, but my hobby is pipetting small amounts of colorless liquid," she said. —Michelle L. Brandt

Name: Christopher "Casey" Brown

Degree: PhD

Passion: Genomics, evolutionary biology

Undergraduate: University of Nebraska

Next: Postdoctoral work at the University of Chicago

While Christopher "Casey" Brown was finishing up his undergraduate days at the University of Nebraska in 2000, he was drawn to the field of genomics. At that time, genomics technologies such as microarrays were making ground-breaking advances.

Much of that work was coming out of Stanford University labs, something the school didn't hide when he came to visit. Although he considered several other schools, Brown ended up choosing Stanford because of the large number of labs all doing work he found interesting. "I could have ended up in any one of many different labs and been happy," he said.

And, coming from Nebraska, the California weather didn't hurt.

He ended up in the lab of Arend Sidow, PhD, associate professor of pathology and of genetics, where he helped create a genetic map of the sea squirt genome. This map will be useful to researchers using the marine organism to study vertebrate evolution and biology.

Six years, two projects, hours of repeated experiments and many miles of cycling in the local foothills later, Brown's interest in genomics—especially applied to evolutionary biology questions—remains. He's planning to continue his work in this area as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Chicago after he graduates from Stanford this year.

Among many experiences that helped define his time at Stanford, one that stood out was forming a genomics journal club. "For about two years that journal club gave me a core group of people who were interested in similar questions," he said. —Amy Adams

Name: Amy Chow

Degree: MD

Passion: Pediatric sports medicine

Undergraduate: Stanford University

Next: Pediatrics residency at Lucile Packard Children's Hospital

Achieving balance comes easy to Amy Chow, medical school graduate and Olympic gymnast. For almost all her life, Chow has matched fun with hard work toward her goals.

Chow helped the U.S. women's gymnastics team win its first gold medal at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. While preparing for competitions, Chow still found time to play the piano and take up new sports like diving and pole vaulting. Stanford's balance of both athletics and academics drew Chow to the campus as an undergraduate, as well as its proximity to her friends and family in hometown San Jose.

Chow said training for the Olympics prepared her for all the effort and dedication it takes to earn a medical degree. Both endeavors had their difficult days, when she knew to recall her long-term goals and to remember that tomorrow always brings a new chance to shine. Learning how to perform under pressure, Chow said, has also helped her feel calm and collected when she greets new patients.

Since the age of 10, Chow knew she wanted to be a doctor, inspired by the pediatrician who treated her gym injuries. "He always had a smile on his face and joked with us so we wouldn't be scared," she said. "I want to make my patients feel that comfortable."

After graduation Chow will be starting her pediatric residency at Packard Children's. Someday that may lead to a specialization in pediatric sports medicine. She also coaches gymnastics where she encourages kids to achieve balance. "They need to work hard for their goals, but also that they have fun in everything they do," she says. —Brian Lee

Brian Lee is a science-writing intern in the Office of Communications & Public Affairs at the School of Medicine