President’s Prize winner Denise Ocampo discovers her passion, strives for medical school

Denise Ocampo grew up in Maui, a place she describes as cultured and beautiful with a small-town feel where everyone knows everyone else. In high school, she took several business classes because her parents own a small business, but she soon realized her passion was in the medical field.

Ocampo, who is graduating this semester with a degree in biomedical science, said she will always have a special attachment to Maui, but felt she was meant for something more and somewhere else.

“I wanted to discover something and help people,” Ocampo said. “After scoring the highest in my high school biology class, my teacher told me she could see me as a researcher or a doctor one day. I started taking health care classes and fell in love with the complexity of the human body. This all led me to choose biomedical science as my major, and I am very satisfied with my decision.”

She visited Northern Arizona University in 2015 and submitted her application early. After she was accepted, she wasted no time in reaching out to students and alumni to ensure she would have the experience she was after.

“When I arrived in fall 2017, it didn’t take me long to know that I had found my place here,” Ocampo said. “I knew I wanted to get involved as soon as I could. In high school, I wasn’t the most popular kid and definitely wasn’t the star student in any of my extracurricular activities, and I felt like I finally had a clean slate.”

She came to NAU with a high school friend, which she believes helped with the transition, but she still had a strong desire to meet everyone and gain all the insight she could. In her second semester, she wanted to get involved with research and reached out to JJ Duke, assistant professor of biological sciences, to see if his lab would be a fit.

“I emailed a few professors, including Dr. Duke, asking them about their labs and whether they were looking for undergraduate assistance,” Ocampo said. “This was a bold move on my part because I was still a freshman and I didn’t know any of the professors yet. I decided Duke’s lab most aligned with my interests and after meeting him, felt that I would work best there.”

For the next four years, Ocampo worked closely with Duke in his cardiopulmonary lab. First, she studied physiological changes in an acclimatized individual after going down to sea level and then shifted to studying the lung function of adult individuals born premature.

“The first semester of working in the lab was tough,” Ocampo recalled. “I hadn’t taken many anatomy classes yet and struggled with the techniques and terminology used in the lab. Research is a tricky field that involves a lot of trial and error and uncertainty, but it is definitely rewarding when you finally find what you are looking for. Eventually, I picked up on it and I’ve been able to pick up projects and develop my own passion for research and certain topics.”

In addition to cardiopulmonary work, Ocampo developed an interest in advocating for mental health awareness. Her freshman year she joined the Student Health Advocacy Committee (SHAC) where she served in several roles overseeing club initiatives and endeavors, communicating with other student organizations and Campus Health Services administration.

“I was drawn to mental health awareness due to my own struggles as well as the mental health struggles of those closest to me,” Ocampo said. “Mental health affects everyone in some way. I have been involved with Campus Health Services at NAU and they do a lot of work with mental health, but we wanted to involve more student voices. Through this, I have been able to work with many people to improve mental health services on campus and reduce the stigma surrounding it.”

For her capstone project, Ocampo helped found the Mental Health Support Squad, a peer-to-peer student organization dedicated to supporting student well-being. The program is designed to equip students with skills and resources to support those struggling with mental health as students are more likely to turn to their peers first before seeking professional help. Ocampo helped recruit members, developed an eight-hour training and made the squad an official student organization.

The Mental Health Support Squad is just one of the many accomplishments she achieved during her time at NAU. She also notes her participation in the Arizona Regents’ Cup, a speech and debate competition as a fond memory during her time at NAU.

“It was something very nontraditional of a biomedical science student,” Ocampo said. “Off all the things I have taken part of, I feel this is the experience that pushed me the most out of my comfort zone. Public speaking is a valuable skill, but is often avoided and ignored in the medical field.”

Tune in to this episode of Lumberchats to hear more about her preparation and experience of the Regent’s Cup.

The competition, along with everything she has pushed herself to be a part of, has expanded her abilities as a student and a person. She said if it were four years ago, she would not recognize herself today.

Ocampo throw graduation cap“My time at NAU has transformed me into a well-rounded person. I have confidence in whichever path I choose. At NAU, people care. The staff, faculty and students ask, ‘how are you doing?’ They motivate and encourage you to reach for that next level, and celebrate when you have reached it. I feel like I had every opportunity to push myself and because I took them, I was also given the resources to flourish. I was never put down or told that I couldn’t do it here. I was only pushed forward at NAU, never held back.”

After graduation, Ocampo has her sights set on medical school in 2022. In the meantime, she plans to take a year and add clinical experience to her resume.

“Though I am unsure of my specialty yet, I am considering neonatology, because the research I did under Dr. Duke made me curious and passionate about this area. I also want to do research on top of my clinical job. One of my life goals is to research pancreatic cancer screening methods, as someone close to me passed away from belated detection. Pancreatic cancer is one of the most lethal cancers because of this, so I would be honored to contribute to the science. No matter where I go, I seek to become a more educated, empathetic person who can change the world.”

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Jacklyn Walling | NAU Communications