Las Vegas, N.M. – A New Mexico Highlands University chemistry graduate has her pick of eight doctoral programs around the country.
In December, Santiana Marrujo’s letters of acceptance started rolling in from Ph.D. programs at Notre Dame, Purdue University, Iowa State University, Colorado State University, Brigham Young University, Kansas State University, New Mexico State University, and UC–Santa Barbara.
Every university offered Marrujo a full ride for her doctoral education. Many science programs bypass a master’s degree in favor of a doctoral course of study – the case for Marrujo.
“What appeals to me about chemistry is creating new molecules that can be used in many applications, such as developing new drugs for cancer treatments,” Marrujo said. “I’m most interested in researching natural product synthesis, where plants are used to develop new drugs for medicinal purposes. For instance, aspirin, an old drug, is derived from a compound extracted from tree bark.”
Marrujo, a 23-year-old from tiny Mora, New Mexico, graduated from Highlands magna cum laude in May 2018 with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry. This was the same month the single mother’s 5-year-old son graduated from the Head Start preschool in Mora.
Marrujo said her family and Highlands made it possible to be both a successful student and single mother.
“I had a lot of family support in helping with my son, and then at Highlands, it was like family too. ARMAS and the Chemistry Department offered me so much academic and moral support. I’m so grateful to all the people at Highlands who helped me reach my goals for graduate school. I was always a good student, but my experience at Highlands transformed me into a scientist,” Marrujo said.
Marrujo worked as an undergraduate research assistant in Highlands organic chemistry professor Jan Shepherd’s laboratory. She still works in his lab.
“Dr. Shepherd inspired me to pursue chemistry because he has such enthusiasm for the subject and saw my potential, which made me believe in myself. With Dr. Shepherd, I had the opportunity to conduct hands-on synthesis research. We created new molecules, investigating a well-known chemical reaction in organic chemistry to see if structural modifications would cause the reaction to go a different path.”
Shepherd said that Marrujo ranks within the top 2 percent of several thousand chemistry majors he has taught in the past 39 years.
“In addition to being extremely intelligent, what stands out about Santiana is that she’s a highly focused student who always pushes forward with great purpose,” Shepherd said. “Santiana has the ability and knowledge to work independently on research projects. She develops and follows her own research timelines with exceptional perseverance.”
Outside the classroom, Marrujo was a supplemental instruction leader for organic chemistry and biology at the Highlands Achieving in Research, Math and Science (ARMAS) Center. Her exemplary grades also earned her an ARMAS Scholar scholarship.
Shepherd said Marrujo is a strong role model for other chemistry students at Highlands.
“Santiana has a subtle and effective leadership style that encourages other students to reach their potential. I expect her to excel in her doctoral studies and am confident she will contribute new knowledge to the field of organic chemistry,” Shepherd said.
Marrujo said in February she will visit six of the eight universities that made her doctoral program offers to explore research opportunities and the campus environments.
“I never thought I’d be accepted to every Ph.D. program where I applied. Dr. Shepherd was a huge help with my applications. I’m very excited and proud to begin this new academic adventure. Wherever I go, I want to show my son the importance of education,” Marrujo said.