GCU alumna's challenging med school journey

Daniela Barrera, who comes from a Mexican family of agricultural workers, was the first in her family to go to high school. Now she's headed to medical school.

By Lana Sweeten-Shults
GCU News Bureau

When the sun hung low in the sky and the days were short, Daniela Barrera would join her family in the fields of Yuma, Ariz., “Winter Salad Bowl of the Nation.”

Her great-grandparents and her grandparents were agricultural workers, and so was her mother, before coming to the United States from Mexicali in northern Mexico.

“She kept working all the time she raised us,” said Barrera.

In her undergraduate research, Barrera (left, pictured with mentor Dr. Daisy Savarirajan, fourth from left) wanted to know if the folk remedies used by her grandmother to treat various ailments do have scientific backing.

When she heard her high school teachers speak about other careers – lawyers, graphic designers, animators, athletic trainers – they sounded foreign to her; agricultural work was what she knew.

“The idea that I could strive for and become a professional seemed unrealistic and even impossible,” she said. “Most of my life, I felt like (those) things were out of my reach.”

She was wrong.

The spring 2018 Grand Canyon University Biology/Pre-Med graduate recently was accepted into medical school -- Midwestern University’s Arizona College of Osteopathic Medicine – and will start classes Aug. 10.

It has been a long road for Barrera, who is the first in her family to make it as far as high school. She attributes those early successes to her mother.

“She always prioritized education,” Barrera said, though, “It’s hard to guide your child when you yourself don’t know how.”

Although Barrera took Advanced Placement classes at her high school, she didn’t know anything about applying for scholarships, filling out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) or even getting into college.

“I didn’t even have internet back then,” she said.

Then one day, a college representative dropped in on her AP English class, and that talk changed everything. It was the first time she heard about the process of getting into college and took her first steps toward those dreams she once thought of as unreachable.

Not wanting to move too far from her family, Barrera decided to stay in Yuma and attend Arizona Western College.

“I wasn’t ready to leave home yet,” she said, as she navigated through criminology and science courses.

It was during a mundane assignment that a classmate gave a talk about living with epilepsy, her  treatments, medications and a recent surgery.

Barrera’s aunt, as it turned out, also struggled with epilepsy and violent epileptic seizures.

What really left an impression on Barrera was that this classmate, with whom she had interacted all semester, looked healthy -- nothing like her aunt.

“I listened to every word … My aunt has the same disorder. But she is the complete opposite of my former classmate,” said Barrera of her aunt, who was confined to a wheelchair by the time she was her and her classmates’ age. Her severe seizures caused significant brain damage, and her disorder went untreated until she was in her late 20s.

Barrera said she never thought medical school was a possibility.

“I realized how life-changing medicine really is,” Barrera said.

So when she transferred to GCU two years later, she didn’t have to find her purpose. She knew it.

Barrera took a Discover trip to the University and knew this was where she was meant to be.

“I just loved it. I loved the campus,” she said, remembering how one of GCU’s students held the door open for her and a few others on the Discover trip, even though they were so far away and it took them a long time to get to the door. “People were so nice.”

One of the opportunities Barrera relished during her time at GCU was the undergraduate Research and Design Program. She heard that her microbiology professor, Dr. Daisy Savarirajan, was looking for student researchers to test different Sonoran Desert plants for possible antimicrobial properties and to see if any of them might be used to treat ailments.

“I just thought it was so interesting,” Barrera said.

Savarirajan said the Research and Design Program boosts students’ self-confidence and prepares them for graduate school, or in Barrera’s case, medical school.

Barrera said she was asked about her research in her medical school interview.

What she wanted to explore in her research led her back to her family, who couldn’t always afford to go to the hospital or spend money on traditional medicine.

“I concentrated more on the kinds of plants my family had used over the years for home remedies,” she said, such as yerba mansa. The herb is used as a home remedy for the cold, intestinal problems and as a pain killer, disinfectant and more.

“It was the first time I got to do something independently in the lab,” Barrera said. “ … It wasn’t for a grade. It was something you were interested in. It gave me that freedom. I really enjoyed it.”

After graduating from GCU, Barrera went on to get her master’s degree in biomedical science from Midwestern University and took a gap year before applying to medical school.

Savarirajan isn’t surprised when it comes to Barrera’s accomplishments. The microbiology professor remembers her as a shy and scared student at first, but one who worked hard, was committed to her academic goals and, ultimately, excelled.

“Rain or shine, she never missed a single day of class,” said Savarirajan, who added that “humility is her greatest asset and earned her a good reputation among her peers.”

Barrera isn’t sure what specialty she might choose but knows whatever path she follows, she’ll be helping people.

“This is what I want to do for the rest of my life. … Just to see the difference it can make,” she said, knowing that her family’s hard work – and mentors like Savarirajan – helped her along the way.

GCU senior writer Lana Sweeten-Shults can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-7901.


Related content:

GCU Today: Sonoran Desert: An oasis for new medicines?

GCU Today: Trio takes forensic science’s unity to next level

GCU Today: A quantum leap to Notre Dame grad school


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