Discovering the Unknown in Cancer and Genetics
At Bennington, scientific education includes hands-on research, faculty mentorship, and ample opportunity to explore questions both within a chosen discipline and beyond.
“The independence and individualized approach to education at Bennington, especially during Field Work Term (FWT), is what attracted me,” said Carlos Mendez-Dorantes ’15. “I was driven to Bennington by the endless possibilities.”
A Bennington education has served Mendez-Dorantes well. Since graduation, he has pursued his Ph.D. at City of Hope in Duarte, CA, where he studies the formation of cancer-associated genetic abnormalities in the lab of Dr. Jeremy Stark.
Mendez-Dorantes’s interest in science stems from an AP biology class he took in high school. Early in the year, the teacher left due to personal reasons, and no suitable instructor was ever appointed to prep for the exam.
Undaunted, Mendez-Dorantes and his peers took their studies into their own hands.
“During that year, I had to learn biology all on my own and with other classmates,” said Mendez-Dorantes. “That independent learning is what drove me and made me curious about biology and science.”
When Mendez-Dorantes explored his options for college, he found that Bennington allowed him to combine in-depth scientific pursuits with a holistic liberal arts education.
“Like any other Bennington student, I was curious about science, but I was also curious about every other field,” said Mendez-Dorantes. “During my time there, I specialized in the sciences but also branched out into many other disciplines.”
Some of these interests were particularly close to his heart. Mendez-Dorantes is an undocumented immigrant and became a DACA recipient during his time at Bennington.
“My identity and experience as an undocumented immigrant is very much part of my Bennington narrative,” said Mendez-Dornates.
Along with Selena Petschek ’15 and Andrea Tapia ’15, he established GANAS, a campus organization dedicated to learning from and helping the undocumented Latino population in Bennington county.
Through GANAS, Mendez-Dorantes organized media projects, conferences, and social events that advocated for and welcomed that community. Since its beginning in 2014, GANAS has become a regularly offered Advancement of Public Action course taught by Jonathan Pitcher and has continued through several generations of student leadership.
Mendez-Dorantes’s experience using his education and background to advocate for Latino communities inspired him to apply for a prestigious Ford Foundation Predoctoral Fellowship, which he was awarded in 2017. This competitive annual honor administered by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine is only granted to 60 students nationwide.
“As a first generation Latino immigrant, it’s important for me to see people from all backgrounds represented in academia,” said Mendez-Dorantes. “The mission of this Fellowship is to increase diversity in faculty in universities across the country, which is deeply connected to what I stand for, so I decided to apply.”
In addition to providing Mendez-Dorantes with a three-year stipend as he completes his Ph.D., the program includes networking and educational opportunities for its Fellows.
“In May, I went to the Conference of Ford Fellows at the National Academy for Sciences, and I met many black and Latino academics from all across the country,” said Mendez-Dorantes. “It was a truly inspiring experience for someone like me who is in a graduate program and considering becoming a professor in the sciences.”
Mendez-Dorantes credits the interactive, individualized education and mentorship he received at Bennington with preparing him to take on the Fellowship’s rigorous application process. His advisor, Dr. Amie McClellan, was instrumental to his development as a student and a scientist.
“I can vividly remember multiple times when my professors provided unique challenges to my projects and assignments to address my weaknesses and solidify my strengths,” said Mendez-Dorantes.
As an example, he cites his proposal for his advanced work in science. Instead of writing a three-page proposal, as his classmates were invited to do, Mendez-Dorantes was challenged to complete a comprehensive ten-page proposal instead.
Additionally, the opportunity to research and publish academic findings as an undergraduate pushed Mendez-Dorantes to develop high-level investigative skills alongside his regular scientific studies. During a Genetics course with Dr. McClellan, students conducted a collaborative, semester-long research project that used a genetics approach to study the effect of a common detergent compound on the cellular level.
“Our findings from this project actually were published in The Journal of Student Research, which included all the students from the course as co-authors,” said Mendez-Dorantes. “At Bennington, students have the ability to take a research project idea from inception all the way to publication. This solid training in genetics with Dr. McClellan definitely prepared me for my work in cancer genetics now.”
Through his current studies, Mendez-Dorantes has continued conducting groundbreaking research. In April 2018, the journal Genes & Development published a manuscript examining DNA deletions and genome instability on which Mendez-Dornates was the lead author. His findings may lead to better cancer therapeutics in the future.
I believe I came to Bennington as a student interested in science, and I left Bennington trained as a scientist.
Carlos Mendez-Dorantes '15
Now halfway through his five-year program, Mendez-Dorantes is considering where he would like his research to take him in the future. After his time at City of Hope, he would like to conduct postdoctoral research in another laboratory and transition into becoming an independent scientist and, later, a professor.
He also remains fascinated by his inquiries into how genetic abnormalities are formed and how they affect cancer development.
“There are so many unanswered questions regarding this type of work,” said Mendez-Dorantes. “One of the reasons I enjoy working in science is because I enjoy learning about the unknown, something no one else is working on. Contributing new knowledge to this world is exciting for me.”
By Natalie Redmond, Associate Writer