Generosity begets opportunity. Several USC Dornsife students met the philanthropists who support their scholarly efforts for the first time at a Feb. 1 celebration event. (Photos: Iliana Garcia Photography.)

Student scholars and the philanthropists who support them celebrate shared successes

Scholarships and fellowships empower students to advance their studies and open career pathways in a range of fields.
ByTaline Rumaya

Graduate student Jiyoun Seo vividly remembers the day she first looked through a microscope and saw the lung cancer cells in a patient’s biopsy sample. That critical moment not only captivated her curiosity, it also defined the path of her academic journey.

With the support of the Schlegel Family Endowed Fellowship, Seo is able to pursue her passion for cancer research through a research assistantship at the Convergent Science Institute in Cancer (CSI-Cancer), based at the USC Michelson Center for Convergent Bioscience.

A PhD candidate in computational biology and bioinformatics at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Seo’s work focuses on detecting and identifying rare cells in lung cancer.

“The support I received from the Schlegel Family Endowed Fellowship has opened doors to invaluable opportunities, including access to state-of-the-art facilities for my research,” Seo says.

Peter Schlegel (2nd from right) established the Schlegel Family Endowed Fellowship to support and broaden students’ experiences at USC.

Physician Peter Schlegel, who established the Schlegel Family Endowed Fellowship, says that while he was looking for ways to support cancer research at USC Dornsife, he felt that investing in talent through academic support is crucial for solving society’s most pressing problems.

“For that individual trainee, fellowship experience is a critical step in their development,” he says. “It allows them to learn by doing and often come up with contributions that can be really important.”

In fact, Schlegel Fellowship recipients contributed to the development of CSI-Cancer’s INTERCEPT, a research program that aims to define the future of early breast cancer detection using a simple blood draw.

Seo’s current work at CSI-Cancer represents a major area of research for the lab: building upon the success of INTERCEPT to explore the potential of liquid biopsy testing for other types of cancer.

Lung cancer is the second-most common cancer and the leading cause of cancer mortality, according to the National Cancer Institute. “But symptoms usually do not appear until the disease has advanced,” Seo says. “My goal is to develop a method that can detect and identify these rare cells in lung cancer at its earliest stages, when it is most treatable, and when patient outcomes can be significantly improved.”

Opening the doors of opportunity

Seo and Schlegel met for the first time at a USC Dornsife scholarship reception on Feb. 1. The event brought together students and donors to celebrate the impact of scholarship.

Guests had the opportunity to hear directly from Seo, senior Connor Castillo and longtime scholarship supporter Adina Savin about how generosity had impacted students’ academic journeys.

“Scholarship support is crucial in allowing students to attend USC, lightening the financial burden on them and their families, and allowing them to focus and engage more in their academic pursuits,” says USC Dornsife Dean Amber D. Miller.

Some opportunities that USC Dornsife scholarship and fellowship recipients participated in over the past year include studying social justice in Africa, setting up health clinics in Vietnam, writing poetry manuscripts about the vast California wilderness, participating in archeological digs in Egypt and compiling data on ocean warming and its impact on microorganisms.

Castillo, an environmental studies major, used funds from the Bauer Family Environmental Endowed Scholarship to conduct research with Zhanghua Chen in USC’s Environmental Health MATTERS program.

“By being selected for this scholarship over the past two years, I had the financial security to participate in this fulfilling experience,” Castillo says, “rather than having to choose a corporate internship that likely would have been less rewarding for me.”

For Schlegel, a professor of urology at Weill Cornell Medicine, supporting scholarships is a way to pay it forward for the help he received on his own journey. “I was very fortunate to be supported by a broad variety of fellowships and scholarships throughout my education from high school to residency training,” he says, “so I recognize the value of that kind of support.”

The value of generosity is not lost on Seo, who feels that fellowships like the one she received not only foster academic excellence but also nurture the next generation of visionaries. “As I stand here today, I am a testament to how such support can impact a student’s educational journey and future career path.”