|Mary Ellen Gana
Photo by Bruce Gilbert
One would have been hard-pressed to see the drive required of a science major in a young Mary Ellen Gana. The 21-year-old spent her childhood in the Philippine village of Ayala Alabang, where she admittedly enjoyed planning outings with her friends and singing alto in the church choir more than her schoolwork.
Now, Gana is graduating from Marymount College of Fordham University with a bachelor’s degree in biology and a minor in chemistry, choosing between a career as a physician or one in biomedical research.
Gana’s interest in medicine is inspired by her mother, Helen, a pediatrician who owned and operated a clinic in an economically depressed province outside Manila, where Gana used to help weigh and measure newborns.
With high school nearing its end, a teacher sparked Gana’s interest in Marymount College, so she applied online—without telling her parents. Early one morning, an admission officer from Marymount called. Gana’s mother intercepted the call.
“My mom—she was so happy,” Gana said. “She asked, ‘Why didn’t you tell me? You’re definitely going to go. I’ll buy the ticket.’ I left in two weeks.”
Adjusting to college life was difficult at first. Eventually, however, she came to enjoy academic life, make new friends and volunteer as a retreat leader for Campus Ministry.
“I was impressed by her sense of dedication and initiative. She is a woman with a mission,” said Carl Hoegler, Ph.D., a biology professor who employs Gana as a work-study student.
Gana’s drive has supported her through very difficult times, including, she said, what “was the most traumatic event of my life.” During her sophomore year, her mother was diagnosed with cancer—her third bout with the disease. She died in a California hospital that spring.
But she credits the support of her friends, church group and the Marymount community with helping her heal. Gana kept up her studies and was accepted into a summer research program sponsored by the New York City Office of Minority Affairs. There she conducted research on cardiovascular physiology and later presented her findings at the 58th annual Eastern College Science Conference (ECSC).
Last summer, she returned to the Philippines to conduct research at the International Rice Research Institute, where she aimed to pinpoint a gene in one variety of rice that would allow it to tolerate long periods of submersion in water, as during the floods that often plague Asian countries.
“By increasing yield, and helping rice to grow in conditions it’s not used to, I’m fighting hunger,”she said.
This spring, she made her second appearance at the ECSC to present her research. Gana has applied to master’s degree programs at New York Medical College for physiology and Northwestern University for biotechnology.