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After a Loss, She Found a New Calling at Rutgers

Meet the Arts and Sciences Class of 2017

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Six years ago, Natalia Patel decided to make a radical change in her life.

She wanted to become an oncologist and treat cancer patients.

That goal would be difficult for anyone to accomplish. For Patel, an émigré from Ukraine, there were some particularly daunting challenges. She was already in her 30s, raising young children, and working in advertising and public relations.

Although she held a bachelor and master’s degrees in economics and management from a Ukrainian university, she hadn’t taken a science course since high school.

Anatolii in Chernobyl in the late 80sBut she had a powerful motivation. Her father, who worked as an engineer at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant following the 1986 disaster, had died in 2006 of cancer.

“I felt like I was shot in the heart and couldn’t breathe,” Patel says. “He was my mentor, my friend, and my parent.”

In the emotional turmoil and soul-searching that followed her father’s death, she began rethinking her life and seeking a new calling, one in which she would work to alleviate the suffering of patients and their families.

“It’s not like I woke up one day and decided I’m going to be a cancer doctor,” the Montville resident said. “But it was clear to me that I had to reevaluate the purpose of life.”

On May 14 she completes a major step towards her goal of becoming a doctor. She will receive a bachelor’s degree in molecular biology and biochemistry, graduating magna cum laude from the School of Arts and Sciences. She earned high departmental honors, and received recommendations for medical school from her professors.

“I feel like I’m dreaming,” she said. “I am just feeling so grateful to everyone who supported me.”

Patel started literally from scratch, enrolling six years ago in the County College of Morris and taking science courses. She gradually built up her skills and confidence and then transferred to Rutgers, where she was impressed by the Department of Molecular Biology and Biochemistry, which offers one of the most research-intensive undergraduate majors.

With help from a supportive husband, devoted children, and good babysitters, Patel adjusted to the busy life of an undergraduate aspiring to medical school. But it wasn’t always easy. The first year she took honors organic chemistry.

“I cried through the whole year,” she said. “But I thought it was a good test. If I can survive that, I can survive anything.”

Besides the academic challenges, she came with some challenges of her own: She is missing part of her left arm – a condition she has had since birth. But she refused to let it stop her.

And over the course of four years of part-time and full-time enrollment at Rutgers, she learned to feel right at home in the molecular biology and biochemistry department. She credits Andrew Vershon, a professor and undergraduate director, for guiding her through the decisions she needed to make on course selections; Gaetano T. Montelione for giving her a position in his research lab; and, Stephen Anderson who often provided academic support.

She described the department as a tight-knit, friendly community.

“If you asked me who helped me, I would have to list every professor,” she said. “You interact so closely. They know you by name and by face.”

She also dealt with the age difference between her and other students with humor and grace.

“I became the class mom!” she quipped. “Obviously I stuck out. But I learned from them, and maybe they learned from me. Some of them have parents my age, and I tried to be the person they can talk to and ask advice.”

At University Commencement and Arts and Sciences Convocation, Patel will be surrounded by her family, including her mother, a retired physician who came in from Ukraine to join her at the ceremony. Her father will be very much on her mind.

“I think he would be proud,” she said. “He taught me to have no fear and to just spread my wings.

Click here to read Natalia's personal statement on her graduation



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