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Specially tailored professional studies degree leads alumna to career in social justice

A conversation with a Misericordia University chemistry professor changed everything for Donna Castelblanco ’14. Actually, many conversations with many faculty and staff did. Nevertheless, it all began with that first one as a first-year student.

The New Jersey native and first-generation college student came to Misericordia as an undergraduate planning to pursue a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a doctorate of physical therapy. “My first chemistry course was with (Professor Charles) Saladino,”Castelblanco explains. “I met with him pretty frequently and he asked me if I ever considered medical school. From there a whole snowball effect of academic changes happened for me, with the support of my mentors, faculty and staff and administration.

A lot of my decisions were with the strong support of Misericordia professors and my family.”Castelblanco, though, did not go to medical school. Her interests and pursuits drove her to designing her degree – with faculty and staff support – in professional studies, with minors in ethics and chemistry. That led to a master’s degree in bioethics from the University of Pennsylvania and her position today as an associate research coordinator on a National Institutes of Health/National Institute on Drug Abuse-funded study at New York University Langone Health. “Because of that beginning conversation, I started looking into medical school and eventually medical school turned into other potentials,” she says. She had taken pre-med requirements, but considered becoming a physician assistant, nurse or social worker. She thought about philosophy and developed a strong interest in ethics, eventually helping design that minor.

Ultimately, she worked with advisors to shape her interests in sciences and philosophy into a degree and a path for her future “I had many academic interests, so the best way for me to be able to take those classes and graduate in four years was to do the student-developed curriculum,” she says. “So that’s how I graduated with a professional studies degree.”Her Misericordia experiences enabled her to understand where she wanted to go. During her senior year, she was one of three students to begin working with Professor Frank DiPino, Jr. on molecular biology research that examined an enzyme associated with breast cancer. While she said working with Dr. DiPino and her student peers, Rachel Bohn ’16 and Sara Sabatino ’14, was a great experience, the work also helped her discover she was not interested in bench research.

Driven to explore, Castelblanco undertook some key efforts outside the classroom as well that guided her and left a mark at Misericordia. Interested in a career in medicine but not a biology major, Castelblanco started looking for an organization that could help guide her. She discovered the American Medical Student Association (AMSA) and talked with associate professor of biology Anthony Serino, Ph.D., about contacting students who might be interested in starting a Misericordia chapter with her. He told her it would be a lot of work, but encouraged her to try. She was joined by biology majors Matt Essington ’14 and Anna Konstas ’14 in founding the AMSA chapter and Castelblanco says they were fortunate to receive a great deal of support from student activities staff, administrators, faculty and President Thomas J. Botzman, Ph.D.

“The reason I really wanted to do it was not only to help me, but also to help other students,” she says. “I wanted to go into medicine but I wasn’t sure about medical school and becoming a physician. It was still a possibility. But I knew there were students at Misericordia that wanted to go to medical school and this was one way I could leave something at Misericordia for students to find support, not just through the biology department but through other avenues, too.”She still stays in contact with the AMSA chapter, three years graduating. Her work as the co-founder and president also led her to establishing an annual pre-medical conference at Misericordia for high school students interested in careers in health and medicine. Creating a conference before graduation was one of Castelblanco’s goals, but there was something else that also inspired her. “I have a very strong passion for service and I think that’s why I loved being at Misericordia so much,” she says. “I wanted to not only serve the people in the Dallas area, but also students on campus.

I was a resident assistant from sophomore to senior year. Being involved on campus with residents, I wanted to find other ways to support students not only in the residential halls but also academically. Founding AMSA and doing other extracurriculars was a way for me to support that.”Service has been a major part of Castelblanco’s life. When she struggled to find her place during her freshman year, and at one point considered transferring closer to home, she learned more about what resident assistants do. It was what she was looking for, an opportunity to support others. She credits becoming an RA as part of what kept her at Misericordia, a decision she was glad she made. Also playing major roles in that were the support she received from her professors, and the University’s mission of Mercy, Service, Justice and Hospitality.

“Those charisms I hopefully still live and breathe, but when I was on campus I was so passionate about them and wanted to live them on a day-to-day basis,” she says. “I wouldn’t have learned any of this if it wasn’t for the Sisters of Mercy, the professors who supported me and residence life.”

Before she left Misericordia, Castelblanco’s academic and service work would be well-recognized. She was inducted into the International Honor Society in Philosophy and received a University Leadership Award, the Service-Learning Leadership Award and the Board of Trustees Award for exemplifying the University’s academic, leadership and service ideals. Upon graduating, Castelblanco had given herself two options. In addition to being the AMSA chapter president, she was also a national officer charged with coordinating webinars for members. One of those was with a bioethicist, who spoke directly to Castelblanco’s dual interests in medicine and philosophy “She was quirky and talking about all these ethical issues in medicine,” she says. “I knew of ethics obviously through philosophy and my ethics minor. I didn’t learn too much about clinical ethics or bioethics. I took one course at Misericordia and I did some personal research, and thought, ‘Why not learn more?’”So she applied to one graduate school, Penn, and she applied to Mercy Volunteer Corps to do a year of service. She was accepted to both. “Who knows where I’d be if I did Mercy Volunteer, but I hope I would be in justas an amazing position as I am now,” she says. “But I decided to do the master’s.”Castelblanco did not forego the service, however.

For her first year in Philadelphia, she did a year of service through AmeriCorps at the American Red Cross while taking classes part time. “It was very exhausting but it was also worth it,” she says. “I gained a lot of skills and I learned about a part of Philadelphia I never would have experienced and appreciated if I was just in the classroom.”After two years at Penn – which also included another year in residence life – she accepted an offer in the fall of 2016 to be associate research coordinator at NYU Langone Health’s Department of Emergency Medicine for a clinical research study at Bellevue Hospital led by Dr. Kelly Doran. The research, a National Institutes of Health and National Institute on Drug Abuse K23-funded study, focuses on addressing homelessness, substance abuse and social determinants to health among adult emergency department patients. Castelblanco has been coordinating three cohorts of volunteer and paid research assistants that conduct quantitative surveys in the emergency department, asking about issues such as housing and other social needs. She also is primarily responsible for conducting qualitative interviews with patients who recently became homeless within the past six months. The study intends to develop a screening tool or some type of intervention to help emergency department health providers identify people who are at risk for homelessness. It is Castelblanco’s first real clinical research experience and the project appealed to her because of her interest in social justice issues and its relevance to policy. While she was initially going to be doing most of the data collection, Dr. Doran recognized her skills for managing a team. Over the past year, the 25-year-old has managed between four and 15 people at a time.

“It’s an experience that I’m lucky to be able to have,” she says. Castelblanco cannot say with certainty where she wants her career to end up. She would like to pursue another master’s or a doctorate, possibly in the social sciences. She knows that her specific interests are in maternal and infant health and reproductive health – and service will always be a key component of whatever she does. “My interest in service is not something that’s a hobby for me, but is a lifestyle and something I can’t live without,” she says. “I know whatever my end goal is I want to serve my community, whether that’s locally or abroad.”Along the way, she will have mentors and friends to guide her. As an RA, Castelblanco advised her residents of something that her Misericordia professors instilled in her.

“I told them that hopefully you’re going to make lifelong friendships with your classmates and roommates, but you should also make lifelong friendships with your professors, whether they become your mentor or your friend or some blend and you continue to keep in contact with them,” she says. “I’m so grateful that I can email a professor at Misericordia and Penn, and they’ll respond and support me. “That’s something students really have to take advantage of. They’re so lucky at Misericordia. It is getting bigger, but it is still a small school. If you just ask, you never know what’s going to happen.”