By Peter Tormey
Gonzaga biochemistry major Nicolas Contreras has a few simple goals. The junior scholar strives to do his best in school and emulate his father and mother — a goal more difficult than it may sound. You see, his father, Alejandro Contreras, is a brain surgeon, and his mother, Maria Amalia Contreras, is a psychologist deeply involved in social justice work.
As Nicolas has discovered, simple does not necessarily mean easy.
Contreras, who speaks fluent Spanish and has dual citizenship in Colombia and the United States, is among only 81 students nationwide chosen to participate in the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Exceptional Research Opportunities Program (EXROP) this summer. He will study neurodegenerative diseases in the laboratory of Arthur L. Horwich, M.D., the Sterling Professor of Genetics and Pediatrics at Yale University School of Medicine. Horwich has recently begun investigating how a misfolded protein contributes to Lou Gehrig’s disease, where motor neuron loss and paralysis occur. Scientists have found the complexity of Lou Gehrig’s disease particularly daunting.
Contreras cherishes the challenge and realizes the opportunity will move him closer to his goals. Nicolas is the third GU science student biology Professor Nancy Staub has successfully recommended to the program in the past three years. Isaac Strong was an EXROP scholar in 2009 and last summer Fernando Rodriquez Perez took part in the program that can fast-track a science career.
“Many doors are opened for these scholars,” said Staub. Gonzaga is among 48 of the nation’s best colleges sharing $60 million from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to create a new era of U.S. science education. The $1.2 million HHMI Precollege and Undergraduate Science Education Program grant has transformed Gonzaga’s science programs, tripling students’ research opportunities.
“I love our partnership with HHMI because it is taking our science programs to the next level,” Staub said. “It is thrilling to send our students off to experiences that will change their lives.”
Colombian-born, Contreras lived in Bogota with his parents and older brother until the family moved to Oregon when Nicolas was 10, settling in Silverton, near Salem.
“My parents had ties in the United States and wanted my brother and me to learn English,” he said. “It was supposed to be a provisional thing, but we wound up staying.” His brother studies physical therapy at Pacific University in Forest Grove, Ore., and competes for its swim team.
Contreras, who loves soccer and says it’s “everything in Colombia,” has had to make a few sacrifices to excel in school. He still plays soccer, but on a club team only now.
“I want to become a doctor. I am also contemplating an M.D.-Ph.D., which would allow me to be a licensed doctor and also do research,” Contreras said. “It’s definitely a full-time commitment. I obviously had to spend many Friday nights in the library studying.”
He has no regrets having had to sacrifice part of his social life to be an outstanding student. After all, his strategy is paying early dividends.
“I’ve had to give up a lot of my social life. I can’t work out as much as I want to do because academics come first,” he said. “It’s very rewarding to be sitting here now and be able to look back at what I’ve accomplished and feel good.”
He is especially happy to have chosen Gonzaga.
“I don’t think people realize the caliber of science program we have,” Contreras said. “Many undergraduate students around the country don’t even dream of having the opportunity of doing undergraduate research. At Gonzaga, we have the opportunity to pair up with faculty and do cutting-edge research.”
Contreras, who has conducted research with Gonzaga faculty since he was a sophomore, said Gonzaga’s “campus atmosphere” was the No. 1 reason he became a Zag.
“What makes Gonzaga unique is the people on campus, the presence that is felt on campus,” he said. “I’m getting much more than a science education and I’m educating my whole persona. I’m a big fan of the core curriculum in the liberal arts.”
Growing up in Colombia has helped Contreras appreciate how fortunate he is.
“Living here, I feel like I’m living in a gold box with lots of opportunities that people in Colombia can’t even imagine,” he said. “There are people in South America who would die to have an opportunity to get an education. My parents instilled this great discipline in me and I have continued what they have taught me.”
He aspires to become a physician for all the right reasons.
“I couldn’t care less about money or prestige,” Contreras said. “I feel like I have a profound responsibility to contribute back to my country and also to the people here that have helped me out.”
Through hard work, commitment and discipline, Contreras’ simple goals are becoming reality.
“I just try to live up to my dad and to my mom,” Contreras said, as if it were so simple.