Spring Graduate Cassandra Villicana Set for Stanford with NSF Fellowship

Cassandra Villicana, '19 Biomedical Engineering, poses for a photo at a Biomedical Engineering Society of SJSU event.

Cassandra Villicana, ’19 Biomedical Engineering, poses for a photo at a Biomedical Engineering Society of SJSU event.

By Abby McConnell, Office of Research

Cassandra Villicana, ’19 Biomedical Engineering, didn’t speak English before she enrolled in kindergarten in East San Jose, but by the time she started first grade, she was bilingual and doing math at a 4th grade level. Her parents, who emigrated from Mexico, emphasized the value of education to all of their children from a very young age. When Villicana’s brothers were in elementary school, her parents enrolled in an adult school to learn English, and when Villicana was born, they made sure their daughter had a head start when it came to numbers.

Cassandra Villicana has been involved in interdisciplinary research in a biochemistry lab at SJSU as well as other research projects.

Cassandra Villicana has been involved in interdisciplinary research in a biochemistry lab at SJSU as well as other research projects.

“Although my father did not receive any formal education and my mother only attended primary school, they knew core math concepts that they wanted me to understand. I remember sitting at the kitchen table after school and doing my times tables and learning long division with my mom, while my father took out card games and dominoes to help me understand statistics,” she said.

Villicana is one of two SJSU students who has been awarded a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship (GRFP). The NSF received more than 12,000 applicants in 2018 and made 2,000 offers nationwide.

The GRFP is the oldest graduate fellowship of its kind, and recognizes outstanding graduate students in NSF-supported science, technology, engineering, and mathematics disciplines who are pursuing research-based master’s and doctoral degrees. NSF Fellows often become knowledge experts who contribute significantly to research, teaching, and innovations in science and engineering.

From Multiplication to MESA

While Villacana’s early talent for math might have been a sign of her future in STEM, she said she didn’t fall in love with science until she was a freshman at Mt. Pleasant High School in East San Jose. There, she discovered the Mathematics Engineering Science Achievement Program (MESA), an organization that fosters early interest in math and science and prepares California middle and high school students to successfully pursue STEM majors in college.

Her first MESA competition introduced her to biomedical engineering and inadvertently, San Jose State. Her team was tasked with building and presenting a prosthetic arm for the National Engineering Competition, and regionals were held on SJSU’s campus. Villicana has been hooked on the possibilities of science and engineering ever since.

“It was the real world application of science and math concepts that I loved, especially the ability to translate that into an actual device that could help people. That transfer of knowledge was incredibly powerful to me,” Villicana said.

Research and Outreach

Cassandra Villicana presented her research at the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students.

Cassandra Villicana presented her research at the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students.

Helping others and transferring knowledge The values of transferring knowledge and helping people speak to the core of who Villicana is, both personally and academically. Through MESA in high school, she mentored younger students in STEM activities, and once at SJSU, through the college-level MESA Engineering Program (MEP) she continued that work. In her undergraduate career she has supported educational outreach to local schools, coordinated corporate sponsors for the Science Extravaganza and judged the MESA Engineering Design Competition. She also managed to earn the title of “Youngest Hired Chemistry Workshop Instructor” by running a support class for fellow undergraduates to help them pass one of the most failed courses on campus.

“As an engineering student, while service and outreach may be on your to-do list, it takes effort and focus to find the time to give back,” said Blanca Sanchez-Cruz, assistant director of Student Support Programs in the College of Engineering. “As Cassandra has moved forward academically and professionally, her priorities have remained linked to the local community. While she has always possessed a clear vision of what she wants to achieve, her priority is building bridges to student whose backgrounds are similar to her own, so they can see a path to college and careers in STEM.”

Villicana has been involved in a range of research activities, from collaborating on a real-time heart rate monitor prototype at Chung Yuan Christian University in Taiwan through the Global Technology Institute Program at SJSU to laser development at Boston Scientific Corporation, researching ways of destroying kidney stones and prostate scar tissue without invasive surgery. For the past two years, she has conducted research in Dr. Laura Miller Conrad’s biochemistry lab, working to reverse the effectiveness of antibiotic-resistant pathogens from the inside-out, by blocking the pathways that make them immune to some of the world’s most commonly used antibiotics.

Taking the Next Step

This research was at the core of Villicana’s proposal for the NSF fellowship, and she also incorporated her interest in microfluidic device design.

After gaining admission to twelve graduate programs, Villicana decided to take her NSF support with her to Stanford in the fall. Choosing Stanford had much to do with the sense of community she experienced during her campus visit, which felt very similar to the one she was a part of at SJSU. She acknowledges it will be challenging to leave behind supportive professors and advisors, including Dr. Karen Singmaster, Susan Arias, MESA Program Director at SJSU, Miller-Conrad and Sanchez-Cruz, not to mention peers and friends from programs like the Research Initiative for Scientific Enhancement (RISE), Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP) and MEP.

“At least at Stanford, I won’t be far,” Villicana said. “For me, it’s a huge bonus that I can stay local. I love the idea of being able to come back to SJSU and support the organizations that helped me, while using my experiences to show underrepresented students what is possible.” 

Students participate in MESA Day events.

Wells Fargo Foundation Gift Funds MESA Schools Program Scholarships for College Bound High School Seniors

Top high school seniors who have participated in MESA will receive $1,000 scholarships funded by Wells Fargo.

Top high school seniors who have participated in MESA will receive $1,000 scholarships funded by Wells Fargo.

Media Contact:
Christina Ramos, SJSU MESA Schools Program Director, (408) 924-3837

SAN JOSE, CA – The MESA Schools Program at San Jose State University received $10,000 from the Wells Fargo Foundation – Silicon Valley to support educationally disadvantaged students who are pursuing college careers in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).

The 2011 graduating MESA students from surrounding school districts within the Silicon Valley that have maintained a 3.0 or higher GPA, completed A-G college curriculum requirements, and participated in MESA’s rigorously academic activities throughout their pre-college careers will be honored May 10 at the Santa Clara Marriott. Thanks to the generous donation made by Wells Fargo, students will also receive $1,000 scholarships to go toward their college education.

The event begins with a welcome from MESA Schools Program Director Christina Ramos and a keynote from a distinguished speaker, Chief of Staff, NASA Ames Research Center – Moffett Field, Karen C. Bradford.  Bradford began her work with NASA as executive assistant to the director of the NASA Astrobiology Institute, where she helped plan, implement, and serve as project lead for the first NAI Minority Institution Faculty Sabbatical and Secretary for the Federation of Astrobiology Organizations. She has been a civil servant for 23 years and is a member of the National Coalition of 100 Black Women Silicon Valley Chapter, where she currently serves as 2nd vice president and membership committee chair.

In addition to Bradford being the keynote speaker, both NASA Hispanic Advisory Council of Employees and African American Advisory Group will be supporting the top five students with educational stipends and/or summer internships to help MESA students get ahead in their career experience.

“It is so rewarding to celebrate the accomplishments of the MESA students and graduates every year” said MESA Schools Program Director Christina Ramos.  “To have these students recognized by industry, and to see our community and partners then come together support our MESA students in their journey ahead shows just how exceptional MESA student are. We look forward to continuing our relationship with Wells Fargo and NASA, so our future graduates can see that they too will be supported.”

The MESA Schools Program at San Jose State partners and supporters include: EMC², Cisco Systems, Google, Wells Fargo, General Electric, IBM, Intel, AMD, NASA, Pacific Bay Capitol Group, The Tech Museum, Santa Clara Valley Water District, the Society of Mexican American Engineers & Scientists, The Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers of Silicon Valley, Applied Materials, San Jose State University, SJSU College of Science, SJSU MESA Engineering Program, SJSU campus organizations, and community partners.

The SJSU MESA Schools Program is designed to prepare and motivate educationally disadvantaged students to successfully pursue college-preparatory coursework and promote careers in math and science, while developing their pre-professional and leadership skills.

MESA, an academic preparation program that serves 20,249 California pre-college, community college and university students who are educationally disadvantaged, is an awarding winning model with a high success rate. Seventy percent of MESA high school graduates statewide went directly to college after graduation compared to 48 percent of all California graduates. Sixty percent of MESA students go on as math, science or engineering majors.