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EMCC Student Lands Prestigious Internship at Genomics Research Institute

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Look up the word “dynamo” in the dictionary and you’re likely to see a picture of Bre’Anca Sanders. The Estrella Mountain Community College (EMCC) biology major has been accepted into the Helios Scholars Program at the Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen).

The Arizona-based, nonprofit medical research institute conducts groundbreaking research, unraveling the genetic components of common and complex diseases, including cancer, neurological disorders, infectious disease, and rare childhood disorders. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the traditional in-person Helios 2020 internship has shifted to a virtual training series.

“Unfortunately, I’m not working in the lab doing research as I had anticipated, but the internship is providing me with career development tools and feedback for entering the research field,” Bre’Anca said. “In addition, scholars get a chance to learn additional safety protocols in the lab, which can always be useful when moving forward to the graduate level in STEM. The information provided in the lectures throughout the internship is very eye-opening as there are topics that I have never considered. The program is creating an opportunity for me to explore other areas of STEM by introducing new topics.”

Bre’Anca began her journey at EMCC in the summer of 2017. She plans on graduating next spring and going to medical school.

“I have always loved how living organisms transform and function,” she said. “Everything about the human body is truly astounding to me. We possess miniscule mechanisms that function better than some of the best machines created by man. As a civilization, we haven’t discovered everything about life, and that pushes me to continue studying and learning more and more.”

That discovery and learning has already been taking place for Bre’Anca right here at EMCC. She recently took part in an exciting research project with Dr. Rachel Smith, using DNA to sex the burrowing owl population that calls the Avondale campus home.

“The research that I performed with Dr. Smith has been amazingly influential,” she said. “We used a DNA amplification method called PCR (polymerase chain reaction), which enabled us to copy certain sections of burrowing owl DNA. Then we were able to inject the DNA onto an agar gel and perform a process called electrophoresis to determine whether a particular owl was male or female.”

She said performing the procedure was empowering because it enabled her to realize the impact of the data on the species. 

“We can use the data to help a local wild bird sanctuary called Wild at Heart determine trends with the burrowing owl species in Arizona,” she said. “That gives insight on how the invasion of the burrowing owl habitat by humans may be affecting the species.”

She presented her research findings at EMCC’s Honors Expo in 2018 where she was named a winner, and attended her first poster conference at Arizona State University (ASU) last spring.

“I got to present with other students from across the nation,” she said. “It’s really invigorating to meet other students who are passionate about science at these events because it lets you know that you’re not the only nerd in the world.”

Biology Professor Dr. Sandy Zetlan has been a huge influence in Bre’Anca’s educational journey, helping her get accepted into the Helios Scholar Program, as well as encouraging her to tutor in EMCC’s Academic Success Center.

“Dr. Zetlan has truly been amazing,” Bre’Anca said. “Because of her, I have been a tutor at EMCC since 2018. She also played a vital role in my applying to TGen because I was not aware of my competitiveness as an applicant. She truly cares about the success of students inside and outside of the classroom, which makes her an invaluable asset to the EMCC community.”

Dr. Zetlan credits Bre’Anca with showing great academic stamina in completing the prerequisites for medical school while raising a family, working, volunteering in the health care community, and giving back to EMCC as a tutor. 

“Her calm, supportive, and engaging demeanor, as well as deep content knowledge, has helped many of our struggling students reach their potential,” Dr. Zetlan said.

But tutoring has also benefited Bre’Anca in more ways than one.

“My communication and interpersonal skills have improved by being a tutor,” she said. “You get the chance to interact with so many different individuals who have a wide range of varying personalities and needs. Since I hope to be a physician, this position serves as a great way to develop vital skills necessary to work with people to make the best of what can be difficult moments.”

Did we mention that the single mother of a 3-year-old daughter also holds degrees in French Studies and Audio Engineering?

“I admire Bre’Anca for courageously exploring her diversity of interests instead of concentrating only on a single path,” Dr. Zetlan said. “Investigating a breadth of interests ultimately led her full circle back to an original goal of a career in medicine and making a real difference in the health of underserved populations. I am so proud of Bre’Anca’s ability to remain true to herself as she embarks on a career of service to others.”


Visit https://www.estrellamountain.edu/programs/biology to learn more about EMCC’s Biology Program. Registration for the Fall 2020 semester is underway. To get started visit https://www.estrellamountain.edu/students/admissions.

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