Alumni News

Bennington Stories: Carlos Mendez-Dorantes '15

Carlos Mendez-Dorantes '15, Ph.D. is a Jane Coffin Childs Postdoctoral Fellow and Forbeck Scholar at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Harvard Medical School. 

Image of Carlos Mendez-Dorantes

Bennington Stories is a series of first-person messages that share voices from throughout the unique and multifaceted Bennington community.

Learning Without Limits

I didn’t learn science from textbooks. At Bennington, I learned science by performing experiments and reading primary literature: in other words, working as a professional scientist.

I grew up in Southeast Los Angeles. In addition to my interest in science, I was into the performing arts in high school.

When it came to college, I unfortunately faced educational barriers due to my undocumented immigration status. However, from across the country, Bennington presented endless possibilities for me. Bennington would afford me the chance to study dance and science at the same time. To this day, I remember that the application essay I wrote for Bennington was a challenge to create one’s own class. My class? “The Physics of Dance.” Bennington made my educational dreams a reality.

I was tremendously attracted to the idea of a self-driven education. At Bennington, I could forge my own path.

Taking classes across the spectrum of disciplines, from dance to environmental law, one begins to forge connections that one otherwise would not think to make. My favorite part about Bennington is that everyone around you is making connections constantly, inspiring one another across fields of study. At Bennington, active learning means learning without limits.

At Bennington, you can also develop your own classes. For example, my fellow students and I who all worked in entirely different disciplines created an interdisciplinary course focused on building a sense of community with isolated migrant workers living near the college. We called this class GANAS, which is a Spanish word that roughly translates to “desire or willingness to do something.”

Our work in GANAS included ESL learning, community health assessment, and outreach advocacy. My friends and I created this course in 2014, and to this day, it is still taught as a yearly course at Bennington. Recent GANAS members have gone on to create women’s workshops, host radio shows, curate oral histories, and much more.

When I graduated from Bennington, I graduated not only with a degree, but with four co-author credits in scientific publications. That’s because at Bennington, you can rigorously test a research inquiry to develop into a scientific publication.

As a scientist, I am fascinated by the inner workings of our cells. My postdoctoral research is on cancer biology, which historically has only focused on 2% of our DNA. What comprises the rest of our genome? Repetitive DNA sequences, which were previously thought to be junk DNA but are rather the genomic dark matter that we have yet to understand. This genomic dark matter appears dormant in normal healthy cells but becomes widely active in cancer cells.

I work to address the contributions of the genomic dark matter to cancer biology. I am developing tools to address fundamental questions: how do they become active in cancers, and what is their impact when active on cancer genomes? Ultimately, the goal is to identify opportunities to exploit the biology of our genomic dark matter for therapeutic purposes in cancers.

My career goal is to lead my own laboratory at a cancer research center and to train the next generation of scientists with the purpose to making scientific training accessible to students from underrepresented backgrounds.

Everything I do comes back to Bennington, where I spent years studying foundational genetics along my favorite scientists. I thank Dr. Amie McClellan, my former advisor, who taught me the ins and outs of molecular genetics and for sharing the joy of science with me. And I thank my Bennington friends, who inspire me every day and are each changing the world.

I always say that I arrived at Bennington interested in science and left a trained scientist. For that, I will always be grateful.

Carlos Mendez-Dorantes, Ph.D.
Jane Coffin Childs Postdoctoral Fellow,
Forbeck Scholar
Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Harvard Medical School
BA 15, Molecular Biology, Chemistry