Las Vegas, N.M. — Highlands University chemistry junior Melecio Perea is one of only 30 students in the country selected to work on state-of-the-art cancer research in a summer internship at the University of Pennsylvania.
Perea, a 20-year-old Las Vegas native, is spending 10 weeks on the Penn campus in Philadelphia for the paid internship.
“This is an incredible opportunity to work at a really large research institution with one of the top medical schools in the country,” Perea said. “Having family members deal with ovarian and other cancers has motivated me to pursue cancer research.
“At Penn I’ll be working with a professor whose research focuses on the BRCA gene mutation, which increases one’s risk of ovarian and breast cancer,” Perea said.
Naturally occurring BRCA 1 and BRCA 2 genes produce proteins that help repair damaged DNA. When the genes mutate, it impacts their ability to create the protein, which can lead to cancer.
Perea was also accepted for a competitive chemistry internship at Johns Hopkins University, but the Penn internship aligned more closely with his research interest.
“Chemistry gives you insight into chemical processes that take place in the environment and the human body, which is fascinating. Taking an organic chemistry class from Dr. Brooks Maki this year and working in his lab really solidified my interest in chemistry. He’s also an excellent adviser,” Perea said.
Perea said he’s gained valuable experience working in Maki’s Organic Chemistry Laboratory, which also strengthened his application for the internship.
“We’re investigating the antioxidant properties of modified amino acids. Antioxidants are important in increasing immune system function and preventing vital molecules in the human body from breaking down,” Perea said.
For example, antioxidants protect DNA and other essential proteins.
“Mel is very intelligent, inquisitive, and a real leader in the classroom,” Maki said “Having worked with him in the lab, I’ve seen the diligence, flexibility and persistence in which he approaches research challenges. I have no doubt Mel will make a contribution in the research lab at Penn.”
At the end of his internship, Perea will present his research project at the Leadership Alliance National Symposium in Stamford, Conn. The alliance is a national consortium of more than 30 leading research and teaching colleges, universities, and private industry.
Perea was the 2012 valedictorian for West Las Vegas High School and has continued to shine academically at Highlands.
He has earned dean’s list honors every semester, garnered a scholarship for academic excellence from the Highlands University Achieving in Research Mathematics and Science (ARMAS) program, was named Outstanding Organic Chemistry Student for 2013 — 2014, and was inducted into Phi Kappa Phi, and academic honor society.
“My experience at Highlands has been great,” Perea said. “I really enjoy the smaller class sizes, which allow you to have one-on-one interaction with your professors. This helps you excel academically and get the most out of your education.”