Chemistry Grad Headed To University of Denver

Belle Penn ’20 created an impressive resume at Dominican. The chemistry major – who also minored in psychology and leadership – joined two research labs, worked as an IT specialist for a Marin-based manufacturer, shadowed Kaiser Permanente physicians in Dominican’s unique Pre-Med mentor program, and guided incoming students as an orientation leader.

Now Belle is continuing her studies at the Professional Masters of Biomedical Sciences program at the University of Denver, buoyed by the skills she developed at Dominican.

The Novato High School graduate came to Dominican’s School of Health and Natural Sciences to play NCAA Division II soccer and study biology, drawn by the University’s small class sizes and the opportunity to develop mentoring relationships with faculty.

An injury stalled her soccer career, but a chemistry class led her to develop another passion.

“I came into Dominican as a biology major because of my love for science, but switched to chemistry in my second year because I developed a love for learning how the smallest particles interact with each other to create literally everything.”

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In particular, Belle credits Dr. Tyler Johnson for giving her the guidance she needed to keep in tune with her goals. Johnson was Belle’s research professor, her academic advisor, and her main professor for both semesters of general chemistry and both semesters of organic chemistry.

 “He helped make a lot of my decisions regarding my future plans and he helped me learn to advocate for myself,” Belle says.

In the Johnson lab, Belle researched the cytotoxic effects of natural oils from marine sponges on specific pancreatic cancer cell lines.

 She gained valuable skills that at a larger institution often would be out of reach for an undergraduate, including how to use a High-Pressure Liquid Chromatography column and how to run and read Nuclear Magnetic Resonance scans. Soft skills she gained in the lab included the importance of transparency, communication, and consistency.

Belle appreciated that she was able to explore academic disciplines outside the sciences, which led her to minor in psychology and leadership.

 “I decided to minor in psychology because I took an intro to psychology class in high school and was fascinated by topics that were taught and wanted to learn more about them. It also allowed me to explore more of the human body.”

Her interest in leadership developed while she served as an orientation leader in the fall of 2018.

“I liked that the leadership studies minor has so much flexibility in the classes that fulfill the requirements and I appreciate that it taught me more people skills, in terms of how to best interact with people not only in the workplace, but also in everyday life.”

Attending two of Dr. Thomas Cavanagh’s courses – Business Communications and Leaderships, and Teams and Change – gave Belle skills that have already come in useful outside the classroom.

“Dr. Cavanagh helped me perfect my resume, cover letter writing skills, listening skills, and so many more important tools.”

Belle is interested in studying medicine, gaining insight into the career while shadowing physicians as part of Dominican’s unique Kaiser Pre-Med Mentor Program.

“The program with Kaiser is something that is really unique to Dominican and it gives students interested in medicine the opportunity to really understand what it's like to be a doctor, which not all pre-med students have access to,” she says. “My experience with the program was nothing but positive. I developed a great relationship with the doctor who served as my mentor and was comfortable enough with her to ask for a letter of recommendation.”

Belle also completed a pre-med fellowship in Zagreb, Croatia, an experience that gave her both global and multicultural exposure.

“I also think it gave me a unique opportunity to understand the healthcare system in a different country with a different style of government than the United States. This trip was honestly one of the high points of my time in college.”

Belle balanced school and work during her junior and senior years as an IT Specialist with Vionic Group, a San Rafael company that manufactures and distributes footwear.

 “I think what made it work for me the most was that it forced me to develop time management skills. My best advice for students trying to balance both would be to know your limits and to not be afraid to set boundaries.”

After graduating a semester early, Belle had time to research master’s programs before settling on the Professional Masters of Biomedical Sciences program at the University of Denver. She was drawn to the program as it offers advanced coursework in the natural sciences and complementary coursework in the humanities and social sciences – much like her own undergraduate experience.

And, just as she did during her undergraduate years, Belle plans to remain open to all new experiences in order to give herself plenty of options after grad school.

“I hope to be working in the field of medicine, potentially for a medical device company, while I decide what my end goal is, whether that be medical school, pharmacy school or something completely different.”

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