Meet this year’s poster child for the joys of intellectual exploration.
Samantha Ancona, a skilled musician from a musical family, happily was majoring in oboe performance at the USC Thornton School of Music. Then, in the second semester of her junior year, she took a freshman cell biology class taught by William McClure and Albert Herrera.
“Both teachers were phenomenal and made me see how interesting biology was,” she said. “I immediately loved it.”
The musician did not switch majors. She simply added another and spent a fifth year studying science. She is graduating with a perfect 4.0 GPA in both biological sciences and oboe performance.
Another pivot point came when she realized that there may be an option for her other than medical school. After volunteering as a lab tech in Donald Arnold’s molecular biology lab at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, she began thinking about a research career. Her plans now are to get a Ph.D. in molecular biology.
She will spend the next year working in Arnold’s lab, studying for the GRE and checking out graduate programs.
The recipient of the Emma Josephine Bradley Bovard Award for the highest GPA among female graduates (an honor that she shared with Catherine Sullivan and valedictorian Sarrah Shahaway) did not spend her years here cloistered with books. As befitting a Sample Renaissance Scholar, she was a member of the USC Trojan Marching Band for four years, where she was a squad leader. And Ancona volunteered at LAC+USC Medical Center and enjoyed getting student rush tickets with friends to L.A. Phil concerts at Disney Hall.
Ancona credits her caring parents and upbringing for much of her success. Her father, Ted, a noted recording engineer, teaches in the music industry program at USC Thornton. Her mother, Valerie Mathews, is a group manager for flight projects at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.
Said Ancona: “In my high school, I knew students who were dealing with family upheaval and couch surfing because they didn’t have a place to stay. I had a very stable home life and not too much pressure. There’s absolutely no reason why I shouldn’t do well.”
Having her dad work at USC and being lucky enough to receive tuition remission also made her work harder. “I felt that I really have to take every unit seriously. Use it all. I can’t go in a class and not study everything.”
That drive and enthusiasm resulted in a wealth of positive classroom experiences at USC.
One she remembers vividly is the music theory class she took from Chris Roze.
“He is so passionate about theory and would explain things in a wry, funny way,” she said. “It was a class that met at 8 in the morning, and he made you want to be there. Even though I haven’t gone on to compose music, it was an eye-opening learning experience that I will carry with me for life.”