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ASU student graduates at 18, ready to launch a career in research

Isabel Alcazar. Photograph courtesy of Isabel Alcazar.

April 16, 2021

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2021 graduates.

Isabel Alcazar has already published research findings, will complete her second medical internship this summer and is graduating with two college degrees. It might seem like a lot for an 18-year-old, but it runs in the family.

Alcazar, from Gilbert, Arizona, will be graduating from Arizona State University this spring with a Bachelor of Science in molecular biosciences and biotechnology from the School of Life Sciences and a Bachelor of Arts in global health from the School of Human Evolution and Social Change.

She enrolled in community college at 12 years old, transferred to ASU when she was 15, and was a co-author on published findings at 16. It also meant deciding what to study at the age of 15. While that may seem daunting to some, for Alcazar it was an easy choice.

“I’ve always loved science,” she said. “Just the idea of being in the lab and being able to create something — that’s always been interesting to me.”

Alcazar’s mother, Amy, homeschooled her daughters since second grade. She said although she did think they would graduate slightly earlier than other students, she didn’t anticipate them graduating from college at 17 and 18.

Once her first daughter, Emily, enrolled at ASU, she recommended taking a while and enjoying the process, but Emily wanted to keep up with her classmates, so she took full-time coursework. Now, her younger siblings are doing the same.

Although this was challenging at times for the whole family, sometimes trading fun family weekends for study weekends, Isabel Alcazar said she is thankful to have had an education tailored to pursuing her interests.

She added global health as a major when she was learning more about medicine and disparities in health access around the world.

“When you’re talking about precision medicine, it’s really only accessible to the top few percent of people who can afford it,” she said. “I’m interested in finding out how we can make that more accessible to people and how we can develop therapies that can be widely accessible.”

For example, one research project she was involved with as an undergraduate student was with Associate Professor Hugh Mason, who is researching how to develop a hepatitis C vaccine using plant cells instead of animal cells. Alcazar noted this research bridges her interests in medicine and global health disparities, as the cost-effectiveness of utilizing plant-based systems may make future vaccines more accessible.

Alcazar said being a homeschooled student and a young graduate has also strengthened her relationships with her sisters, as they all know what it’s like to be the youngest in the classroom.

Alcazar’s older sister graduated from ASU in 2019 at age 17 with a Bachelor of Science in civil engineering, and her younger sister will graduate soon, with a Bachelor of Science in mechanical engineering.

This summer, Alcazar is interning at Johns Hopkins University for the second year in a row, this time researching with the pulmonary and critical care medicine unit. She plans to continue her education and will be applying to graduate school this fall.

Alcazar was awarded the following scholarships: All Arizona Academic Team Scholar, Coca-Cola Gold Award, Western Alliance to Expand Student Opportunities and ASU Phi Theta Kappa Scholarship.

She shared more about her academic journey and experience at ASU.

Answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Question: Why did you choose ASU?

Answer: I chose ASU for its strong reputation for biological degree programs and innovation. My major in molecular biosciences and biotechnology allowed me to gain a strong foundation in biology while also learning about the rise of medical technology and its applications. This led me to question the access of these new developments and I began my second major in global health.

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?

A: One of my favorite aspects of the ASU Tempe campus was finding different places to study with friends — community gardens, music halls, empty classrooms and student centers. I couldn’t pick just one favorite!

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: Seek out internship or research opportunities! For me it was a great way to network with people in my field and meet students who share similar interests. While at ASU, I was able to shadow physicians and conduct research through summer internships at the Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen) and Johns Hopkins University. These experiences also allowed me to learn more about my interests while confirming my career goals.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: After graduation I plan to continue my studies in graduate school to work towards a PhD in biological sciences with an emphasis on health disparity. I started my college education at a young age because of my motivation to learn. With a career in research, I envision myself continuing my passion for scientific discovery as a lifelong learner.

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