The Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Department is proud to be called home to some of the most outstanding undergraduate students in higher education. These students display a high level of dedication, not only in furthering their education but in their desire to be on the frontlines of scientific discovery.
Meet Joaquim Diego Santos, a rising Senior, from Douglassville, Pennsylvania, majoring in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and working towards a minor in Microbiology, as well as, his Certificate in International Science. Originally from the Philippines, his parents immigrated to the United States when he was a child. He has always held a curiosity for how the world works, and a drive to help those in need. Diego credits both to his parents, Marissa, a Registered Nurse at Reading Hospital, and Marcial Santos, an Operating Room Technician at Tower Health Systems at Pottstown Hospital.
As a senior in high school, Diego was accepted to a Medical Health Professions Program provided through the Berks Career and Technology Center. There he was given the opportunity to take both chemistry and physiology courses at the Penn State Berks Campus, and shadow healthcare providers in various units within the Reading Hospital. “This experience truly solidified my endeavors to advance the frontiers of science as a physician,” said Diego.
As a first-generation college student, Diego found the American higher education system difficult to navigate, and therefore was unsure what university would best fit his needs and goals. In the end, he chose Penn State because of his ability to engage in scientific research, study in multicultural settings, and contribute to the greater Penn State Community.
As a first-year student, Diego was accepted into the NASA Pennsylvania Space Grant Consortium Minority Undergraduate Research program. The program offers first-year students a faculty mentored internship in a research laboratory at Penn State’s University Park Campus. Diego interned in the laboratory of Associate Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Timothy Miyashiro. There he investigated how the bacteria, Vibrio fischeri, colonizes the light organ of the Hawaiian Bobtail Squid in order to acquire nutrients for bioluminescence, and its overall cellular proliferation.
Diego’s experience working in the Miyashiro Laboratory inspired and propelled his pursuits to engage in additional research and hospital setting experiences. During the Summer of 2018, despite being told that STEM majors don’t often study abroad, the Eberly College of Science provided Diego the unique opportunity to travel to Beijing, China, to attend Peking University and study the biology of cancer. While in Beijing, he witnessed novel approaches to scientific research, specifically regarding Peto’s Paradox, and the cancer resistance mechanism of multiple p53 genes in the genome of elephants.
During the Summer of 2019, again with the assistance of the Eberly College of Science, he traveled to Arusha, Tanzania, where he studied the biology of eco-health. This experience offered him the opportunity to visit many local villages and engage in discussions regarding conservation and climate change. While in Arusha he also experienced firsthand, human-wildlife interactions, acquired scientific inquiry skills, and learned different communications techniques. Diego used this opportunity, his experiences and all that he learned while in Arusha to author a capstone paper on Improving Out-of-Hospital Emergency Care in Tanzania.
In addition to his trip to Arusha, Tanzania, during the Summer of 2019, Diego also worked in the Reading Hospital’s Department of Surgery as an Operating Room Intern. “This experience enabled me to scrub in on numerous surgeries across all the disciplines, as well as prep rooms for procedures, and round on patients with surgeons,” said Diego. “Spending time in the operating room affirmed my desire to pursue a career in healthcare, specifically surgery.”
Outside of his research and academic work, Diego is highly involved on campus and within the Penn State Community. Since his first-year, Diego has been involved in Penn State’s Student Government, the University Park Undergraduate Association (UPUA). “As one of the only people majoring in a STEM field, it was very important for me to become an advocate for my college to entities like the University Faculty Senate, the Administrative Council on Undergraduate Education (ACUE), Undergraduate Education, and many other units,” said Diego.
Serving as the Chair of the Academic Affairs Committee, an Eberly College of Science Academic Representative, and an Eberly College of Science Student Senator in the University Faculty Senate, Diego has been able to accomplish many initiatives to help better the lives of his fellow students. Two examples of initiatives Diego has been able to accomplish are: Test Prep Review Week, where students were given free MCAT, LSAT, GRE and GMAT review books, as well as the LionLink Job Shadow Experience in Philadelphia. In his leadership roles he has had the opportunity to provide the student perspective in major University decisions such as grade forgiveness, academic advising, and even the satisfactory/unsatisfactory grading in light of the COVID-19 Pandemic.
Adding to his impressive list of student activities, Diego serves as the University Relations Director for Penn State’s Lion Ambassadors. Lion Ambassadors are Penn State’s Student Alumni Corps who aim to communicate the University’s history, personality and traditions to students, alumni and friends through various forms of programming. Aside from providing tours for prospective students and organizing projects to increase school spirit, Diego has worked to establish lasting relationships between the Penn State Alumni Association and the greater Penn State community.
In what little free time Diego has, he enjoys photography and has become an avid photographer. “My father is truly my inspiration for photography, and he got me my first camera when I was in 7th grade,” said Diego. “I love photography because you can capture a moment in time, and it can last forever in a photograph.” Currently he serves as a Penn State Homecoming Photography Captain and has been a part of THON’s Photography Committee for the past two years. Diego has even tried his hand as an entrepreneur, established his own photography business, JD Photography, where he takes photos of graduating Seniors.
After graduating from Penn State, Diego plans to take a “Gap” year before enrolling into medical school. As you would expect, he plans to spend this year continuing to develop his skills and helping others. Using his Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) certificate, earned through Penn State Emergency Medical Services, he is excited to provide direct care to trauma patients in pre-hospital settings. Although not sure what medical program is right for him, he says “At this point, I just really hope I get into one!” In the meantime, he has been reading stacks of medical philosophy books and shadowing physicians in his hometown. After medical school, he hopes to accomplish his dream of becoming a surgeon in either orthopedics or oncology. He says, “However, that could change so quickly! Right now, we’re just seeing where the world takes me.”