FEATURE | Posted July 13, 2016

Determined to succeed

UC Davis engineering student beats leukemia, makes dean’s list

Melvin Florencio Lorenzo was in the middle of completing not one, but two very difficult degrees: mechanical and aerospace engineering. So when he was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia in 2013, he could only think about one thing.

Melvin Florencio Lorenzo, a UC Davis engineering student, was determined to succeed, beating leukemia and keeping up with his studies
Melvin Florencio Lorenzo at the Cancer Center’s Pediatric Infusion Center

“I have to finish school, I have to get my Ph.D.,” said Lorenzo, then 20 and a UC Davis student.

The son of Guatemalan immigrants, Lorenzo said his parents inspired him to work hard as a student, and that drive sparked his interest in engineering.

“They never held jobs that were high paying or even stable,” Lorenzo said. “I knew going into college that I wanted to pursue something I was passionate about and make the most of all the opportunities they made available to me.”

But why struggle to get a Ph.D. while undergoing treatment? Why not wait until after?

“I wanted to set an example for my little sister, Kathlyn,” Lorenzo said. “I wanted to prove to her that as long as she sets her mind to accomplishing a goal, nothing is impossible.”

Focused on studies, beating cancer

Mechanical engineering was always Lorenzo’s main focus, but because he likes airplanes, “I sort of picked up aerospace engineering,” he said. UC Davis offered a dual degree program, so he thought, “Why not try rocket science?”

At the time of his diagnosis, Lorenzo was taking summer courses, but when he started his third year, his academics, combined with cancer treatment grew more difficult. He was in and out of UC Davis Medical Center, first for a fever, then for inpatient chemotherapy and then back to the hospital for another fever.

“I felt hopeless — absolutely hopeless,” Lorenzo said. “There were so many assignments and tests, I had no idea what was going on in any of my classes. I wanted to give up, I shed tears just thinking ‘I can't do it. This is physically impossible.’”

Melvin Florencio Lorenzo walks with his mother, Ofelia, and friend, Alex Angulo at the Cancer Center’s Pediatric Infusion Center
Lorenzo walks with his mother, Ofelia, and friend, Alex Angulo, to the UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center’s infusion center for his maintenance treatment.

Lorenzo cited the added difficulty of distance from loved ones, at least initially, as his family was still in Los Angeles. Thankfully, he said, his friends and fellow cancer survivors coached him throughout his treatment.

In terms of academic support, Lorenzo said his mother, who moved to Davis for a year and a half during his treatments, proved invaluable.

“She told me that it was okay to take a break, but that if I really wanted to do it, I could,” Lorenzo said. “She was always there for me.”

That allowed Lorenzo to pour himself into his studies.

“My mom would drive me to chemo, and I would study in the car, and the nurses would give me quiet time to work,” Lorenzo said. “That’s the most focused I’ve ever been in my entire life.” Little by little, Lorenzo squared away his assignments. When grades came out, he was shocked. He didn’t just pass his classes, he made the dean’s list.

“I was overwhelmed,” Lorenzo said. “I just knew that since I made it through the chemo and the studying, I could make it through anything.”

Advanced degree to pursue cancer research

What’s more, he was accepted to a Ph.D. program. This fall, Lorenzo will enroll in Virginia Tech College of Engineering, where he will work in the Bioelectromechanical Systems Laboratory on developing new cancer therapies with his mentor, Professor Rafael Davalos.

Specifically, Davalos’ research team is devising a method in which tumors are pulsed by electric fields to create holes in the cell’s membrane and induce cell death.

It’s an interest Lorenzo says was sparked by his older brother, Maltish, who volunteered at local hospitals and currently attends Harvard Medical School.

“My brother and I would talk about our interests in science during my senior year and throughout my years in college,” Lorenzo said. “All the diseases were very interesting to me, but I knew I wanted to be an engineer and didn’t want to be a doctor.”

Despite his interest in the medical sciences, Lorenzo wasn’t sure he was going into biotech until he applied to graduate programs. He considered three offers: a mechanical engineering position at Northwestern University, a robotics master’s program at Carnegie Melon University and the biotech position at Virginia Tech.

The decision was tough.

“What finally sold it to me was their groundbreaking cancer research,” Lorenzo said. “Cancer is dear to my heart.”

Lorenzo said his experiences with the disease, and his interactions with others who suffer from it, drove him to study cancer. He wants to make sure nobody has to go through the pain of chemotherapy or radiotherapy again. He wants better, easier cures.

“I’ve seen friends pass away because medical technology hasn’t been fully developed,” Lorenzo said. “Knowing that the research there is going to help those suffering with cancer makes me want to do it.”

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