Savannah Rocha was a sophomore in high school in Crawford, Colorado, when her father was diagnosed with cancer. Doctors didn’t know if he would make it to her graduation, and she felt helpless.
At the time, she was learning about proteins and cancer in science class. She realized her calling: to figure out what’s behind diseases like cancer and to prevent other families from feeling disheartened.
Rocha is graduating with a bachelor’s degree in microbiology from Colorado State University. Her father’s cancer has been in remission for six years. She starts work on a Ph.D. at CSU next fall, and said she hopes to be a professor one day.
Life, she said, is good.
Rocha said she took a different path, compared with her high school peers; only a handful of them will graduate from college.
“My mom always instilled in me that education is huge,” she said. “‘You will always have your education,’ she told me. That drove me, as well as not wanting to feel the way I felt about my dad’s cancer diagnosis.”
Jump into research
Rocha jumped into research as well as education during her sophomore year at CSU. She emailed every professor in the Department of Microbiology, Immunology, and Pathology, and landed in the lab of Ramesh Akkina, where she said she “fell in love” with cell culturing.
After taking an immunology class with Associate Professor Mark Zabel, she began studying the basic mechanisms of prion diseases in his lab.
“Ever since then, it’s been my passion,” she said, describing the neurodegenerative ailments known as prion diseases, including Chronic Wasting Disease in deer, which is similar to concussion, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease in people. There are no treatments or cure for prion diseases.
Zabel described Rocha as hardworking, smart, motivated and organized. “Savannah is a serious student, an engaged citizen and a great advocate for women scientists,” he said.
Rocha has been studying the alpaca’s immune system, trying to replicate antibodies in the animals with an eye towards creating a possible treatment. She’s presented her research at Celebrate Undergraduate Research and Creativity and the Multicultural Undergraduate Research Art and Leadership Symposium. Last May, Rocha discussed her work at a conference in Japan, and was published in the journal Prion.
Rocha is the recipient of a Microbiology Scholarship and Green and Gold Scholarship from CSU. She also received the Lena Sammons Reed Scholarship and awards from the Rotary Club of the North Fork Valley and Hotchkiss Kiwanis.
Outside of the lab, Rocha is a gifted athlete who lifts weights competitively. She will take part in her first body-building competition in the fall.