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Life Is Looking Up

Lab technician and USC College graduate Morgan Hawkins works with Susan Forsburg, professor of molecular and computational biology. Photo credit Dietmar Quistorf.
Lab technician and USC College graduate Morgan Hawkins works with Susan Forsburg, professor of molecular and computational biology. Photo credit Dietmar Quistorf.

The federal stimulus package came too late to help Morgan Hawkins -- his own strength of character had already set him back on his feet -- but a stimulus-funded research job will let him take the next step.

The 23-year-old native of South Los Angeles is working in the laboratory of Susan Forsburg, professor of molecular and computational biology at USC College as he waits and saves to go to medical school.

It is a far better place than he has known for some time.

His scholastic career started out well. Hawkins’ parents sacrificed to send him, his older brother and their sister to private school. The public alternative — Inglewood High — was not acceptable to the family.

Morgan won an academic scholarship in sixth grade and gravitated toward the sciences as a teenager. By 2004 he was ready to follow his older siblings into college. His choice: Xavier University, a historically black college in New Orleans, La.

Hurricane Katrina hit just before Hawkins’ sophomore year.

“I lost everything out there,” he said. Without transcripts or any other record of his stay at the flooded college, Hawkins spent the next year bouncing around: one quarter at UCLA, another semester at California State University Dominguez Hills.

He was mulling a return to Xavier for his junior year when, one summer day, his father went for a check-up at the former King/Drew Medical Center and never came back.

Knowing the wait to be seen can stretch all day, the family did not grow worried until evening. When they did call, hospital staff asked them to come in. Hawkins’ father had been found in cardiac arrest next to his pickup truck and died two days later. He had never made it into King/Drew.

The grieving family was left with no breadwinner and very little money in the bank. Morgan’s mother flew to Mississippi to stay with relatives, leaving him in charge of wrapping up his father’s real estate business.

“It was more than tough,” he said of that period.

Life started to look up when his mother moved back and USC admitted him as a transfer student. But even with a generous package of financial aid, Hawkins held two jobs through his junior and senior years: as a work-study student in the Department of Contracts and Grants and as a server at IHOP.

During summer “vacation,” he worked full time in Contracts and Grants and topped off most days with a late shift in the restaurant. Sleep was not a priority.

The payoff was graduation in 2008 with a bachelor’s in biological sciences and a relatively small student loan debt of around $30,000.

“I’m very thankful to the university,” Hawkins said.

After spending the next year in a postbaccalaureate program at the University of California, Davis for underrepresented minorities interested in medicine, Hawkins answered an online job posting for a research and laboratory technician at USC.

The posting did not specify the laboratory. It turned out to be that of Forsburg, his old advanced genetics teacher. She e-mailed him, he interviewed for the position — which in a weak economy, drew a large group of strong applicants, including many former students — and won the job.

“He’s a smart, motivated and brightly independent guy,” Forsburg said. “He’s a fabulous role model for what a kid can accomplish with brains and hard work.”

And, she added, “He has a million-dollar smile to boot.”

Hawkins started July 13. He and two graduate students are studying the genetic roots of miscarriages by exploring related genes in the model organism S. pombe, a type of yeast.

More than half of miscarriages result from gross chromosomal abnormalities in the developing fetus, Hawkins said. Understanding the genetics of model organisms is a common strategy for gaining insight into human processes.

“Knowing more about them hopefully will provide more information about us,” Hawkins said.

The project is funded by a grant from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Hawkins plans to work in Forsburg’s lab until the fall of 2010, when he hopes to go to medical school.

With the money saved, the expertise gained and a long-standing interest in medical research, he will be on his way to his dream job of clinical researcher.