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Mom’s cancer experience spurs daughter’s future in public health

Emily Zolfaghari has a passion for both the human and scientific sides of medicine

by Andrea Bennett

USC senior Emily Zolfaghari is looking toward commencement, knowing that the future offers the adventure of medical school and the prospect of using science to help others. It’s a journey fed by a passion for health and medicine that first blossomed at age 15.

Emily Zolfaghari headshot

Emily Zolfaghari graduates from USC with a bachelor’s degree in May 2014, destined for a career in health. (Photo/Courtesy of Emily Zolfaghari)

That’s when she had to deal with the heartbreaking news that her mother had cervical cancer. “Through the process, I started learning a lot about different cancers and became interested in what else could affect the growth of cancer,”  Zolfaghari said.

Zolfaghari poured her curiosity and concern into the research of potential risk factors for the disease. She theorized that, with the rise in incidence of both reproductive cancers and obesity in the last decade, sugar might be linked to certain malignancies.

Only a sophomore at La Reina High School in Thousand Oaks, Calif., when her mother was diagnosed, Zolfaghari proposed her idea for a cancer study to several universities. USC Professor Louis Dubeau invited the budding scientist to his lab at the USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center, where she found guidance and learned sophisticated research techniques.

“From then on, I really wanted to come to USC,” she said.

A road to research

At just 17, she shared her findings as the youngest speaker at the TEDxConejo Conference in 2010. Shortly after, she enrolled at USC, becoming the first in her family to attend college.

At USC she found invaluable support from the USC First Generation College Student Mentor program.

“I used to be embarrassed to say I was a first-generation college student, but here I found so many students who are, too,” she said. “To have that support made me feel really good about myself. Now if someone asks me, I’m proud of it.”

Zolfaghari has relished the many research opportunities she’s found at USC. A health promotion and disease prevention studies major at the Keck School of Medicine of USC, she was recently named an undergraduate fellow for a joint study with the USC Global Health Institute, Operation Smile and Children’s Hospital Los Angeles on the genetic and environmental factors of cleft palate syndrome.

As part of the study, she heads to the Philippines this summer to conduct research with children and families.

“It is amazing that USC wants you to be involved in research as a student, especially as an undergraduate. I found my passion for global medicine as a result,” she said.

Care for those who need it most

For the past three years, she’s traveled to Tijuana every three months with Healing Hearts Across Borders at USC, which provides free medical care to patients in impoverished communities.

“We don’t get any sleep on the trips, with packing and preparing and getting through Border Patrol with bags of medicine,” she said. “But it’s so rewarding to help people who are in a vulnerable state in underserved communities.”

As a resident adviser for the Health and Wellness floor in New/North Residential College, she galvanized students to make care packages for her trip south.

Zolfaghari, who also found time to be a peer health educator at the USC Engemann Student Health Center, credits USC with opening her eyes to the world’s diversity.

“I used to live in a bubble. USC opened me up to so many things, and I’ve met so many international students here,” she said. “My experiences here truly made me find out what I’m passionate about and what to do with my life.”

A future full of service

When she walks in the 2014 commencement ceremony to accept a Bachelor of Science from the Keck School — with her mom, now recovered, cheering from the audience — Zolfaghari is just a semester away from earning her master’s degree from the USC Davis School of Gerontology.

She plans to apply to medical school, spend a gap year working for either UNICEF or the International Medical Corps and eventually serve as a physician for Doctors Without Borders.

“There are so many health problems abroad that we take for granted domestically,” she said. “If I can find it within my power to help someone, I will.”

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