An Unexpected Journey to Becoming a Doctor

November 1, 2019

Martin OlmosMartin Olmos’ ’21 path to becoming a doctor took an unexpected turn at Whittier College.

Olmos, a biology major with a minor in chemistry, has known since middle school that he wants to treat patients. Naturally he chose the pre-med track, but its path has lead him somewhere he didn’t expect. He still wants to become a doctor, but now he’s adding cancer research to those plans.

It all started with a course he signed up for partly because he was inspired by how cool it sounded: Cancer: Can We Win the Fight. The first-year writing seminar introduces students to basic research and how to compose a solid lab report. He felt comfortable in the course, led by biology professor Sylvia Lopez-Vetrone. He could be himself: curious and outspoken.

Lopez-Vetrone, the James Irvine Foundation Chair in Biological Sciences, noticed. She pulled Olmos aside and asked if he would be interested in applying his natural inquisitiveness to more advanced research. She selects a student or two every year to join her cancer experiments. If he kept up his impressive work, he could be that student.

“I got excited,” he said, brimming with enthusiasm. “I was like, wow, my professor’s kind of pointing me out. I felt accomplished already.”

He would soon have much more to feel proud of. He won a grant funded by the National Science Foundation to pursue his own study into his sophomore year, looking at the potential for cannabidiol (CBD) as a cancer-fighting agent. He wants to investigate the potential for natural substances to treat diseases, and step away from synthetic chemicals that are harder on patients’ bodies.

“I was so excited. I was so happy. For that proposal, I put in so many hours of work,” Olmos said. “I was like, let’s start right now.”

His experiments have proven out consistently positive results, building his already growing excitement.

“As I’m going through this, without even knowing it, I’m finding more of a passion to do research,” Olmos said. “What’s the next step? What’s next? I want to do it right away.”

He’s brought his results to multiple conferences, both academic and professional, where he can share his excitement with a wider audience. Plus, as he walks around and sees everyone else’s experiments, his enthusiasm for research is further cemented. He wants to be apart of the amazing work that’s being accomplished to combat cancer.

Lopez-Vetrone helped Olmos, and his peers in her lab, to attend such conferences. He’s grateful to call her his mentor, and thankful that she was tough on him at the beginning. She set high expectations, and in rising to meet them, he quickly became confident and independent in the lab. Now, as a junior, he’s able to return that favor and guide fellow students who are new to their labs. As he shows them how to culture cells and use lab equipment, he’s setting them up for the same success he’s enjoyed.

Olmos has grown a lot since he was in their shoes. Research requires a lot time and attention from a student. But in meeting those demands, he knows how to manage his time, stay organized, and get things done.

“I feel like I’m almost a different student from when I started. All through the college experience, I’ve been able to mature and grow,” he said. “I feel like I’ve grown tremendously since my first year at Whittier.”

Along the way, Olmos’ experiments were supported by fellowships, including the Keck Undergraduate Summer Research Fellowship. To learn more about opportunities for financial support for undergraduate and graduate-level work, visit the Whittier College fellowships website.