While many have battled or stood by as a loved one battled cancer, Taos High School senior Ariana Baca hopes to help end everyone's fight against the disease once and for all.
The science-adept student is one of 100 recent winners of the national Emperor Science Award, which will get her in touch with an oncologist working to fight cancer and give her the opportunity to work under this doctor, study the disease and learn more about the medical field. After submitting a 750-word essay, Baca is the only student from New Mexico to receive the award for this year's entries.
From an early age, Baca was interested in science and the many aspects of the field when she began participating in intermediate school science fairs performing simple experiments. Now, with several years of science fair experience and awards under her belt, Baca looks to the future and is committed to her goal of potentially eliminating cancer.
"Cancer has been a thing in my family," Baca said. "I just wanted to find a way to help, and I saw the opportunity thanks to my sponsor and I went for it. That's one opportunity you can't pass up. If you see one, you should grab it."
While many students applied for the opportunity to work alongside an oncologist, Baca has a special connection to the field. Several members of her family have been affected by the disease, including her mother, and she said she wants to find a way for families to not have to deal with losing a loved one to cancer. Baca's mother fought through childhood cancer, which returned in her adult life. She continues to remain strong in the face of the disease.
The Emperor Science Award grants its winners $1,500 to be used for and during the research of a project, as well as a virtual mentor program with a scientist studying cancer. Baca said she plans to use the experience to further her into the medical field. She is currently preparing to seek out a spot at University of New Mexico in the medical program. During her time with the mentoring scientist, Baca will work via email, phone and possibly social media with the scientist on a specific project involving cancer research. Baca said there is no set topic for the research yet.
"It's amazing to see her continue to grow like this and to exceed everybody's expectations," said Taos District Science Fair Director Laura Tenorio. "To actually see her apply herself and be able to commit herself to going to that next step at the higher level, it warms my heart. This is what makes teaching worthwhile."
Like many scholarly youth in Taos, Baca does more than just her activities in science and can often be seen with a 4-H jacket when not in the science labs. As president of Taos County 4-H, she also works with Saint Michael's youth group with the Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish and has even thrown her hat in the 2017 Fiestas de Santiago y Santa Ana queen's court. Any free time she has during the school year is devoted to tutoring and mentoring younger students in science and assisting them with any science fair help they may need.
While looking to the future of the program and working with scientists studying cancer, Baca said her biggest challenge will be finding the time to fit everything into her schedule, but she is ultimately grateful for the opportunity. Her future plans in medicine include either pursuing a path in anesthesiology or continuing with her upcoming research and becoming an oncologist. Whatever her final decision, a brief internship program with Taos County Emergency Medical Services solidified her goals to be a part of the medical field. She plans to spend her senior year working toward her goal.
"She's an amazing young lady, and she's got an amazing future," said Tenorio. "By being able to be paired up with this mentor, she'll be able to get the type of resources that are really hard to get in a small town."
The award stems from the Emperor Science Program, a program of PBS Learning Media and Entertainment Industry Foundation, with a mission to connect high school students with potential careers in science and the field of cancer research. Baca's essay was of particular interest to the judges due to the fact that she plans to attempt to use cultural and local remedies to combat the disease, similar to remedies her grandmother used on her when she was sick as a child. Local plants used in Hispanic and native cultures, like osha and cota herbs, among others, are on her list of experiments in her battle against the disease.
"[Cancer] takes too many people, and it takes them really quick sometimes," Baca said.