Class of 2016: Michelle Ozaki ’16: Dedicated to Finding a Cure for Cancer

Michelle Ozaki '16

Michelle Ozaki ’16 didn’t have to travel far from her hometown of Pasadena, California, to find what she was looking for in a college. She always knew she wanted to be a science major, but she also wanted a close community, small classes, and a beautiful campus. She chose Scripps because it had it all and more—including a collaborative and supportive classroom environment and state-of-the-art research facilities for the biology major. As she prepares to graduate this week, she reflects, “I have learned so much during my time here, and I am so thankful for all the opportunities Scripps brought me!”

During her time at Scripps, Ozaki was a standout student in the W.M. Keck Science Department. She worked in Professor of Biology Zhaohua Tang’s lab as a researcher, a position she held since she was a first-year. And she was awarded three consecutive Howard Hughes Medical Institute fellowships from the Keck Science Department, which allowed her to continue her research during summer breaks.

As a researcher, Ozaki participated in many projects investigating cell function and cancer, such as helping to identify the genes used in the cellular response to platinum-based anti-cancer drugs and phenol compounds—for which she screened 2,843 genes. She also looked at whether BPA, BHA, and BHT (chemicals founds in plastics, food preservatives, and makeup, respectively) induce apoptosis/cell death. She also studied the affects of Dsk1/Kic1 kinases on the splicing of important cell cycle regulation genes—research that became the basis of her senior thesis, which she presented at the national conference of the American Society for Cell Biology in San Diego.

Ozaki’s passion for science is rooted in her childhood.

“I always found science fascinating. My dad is a doctor and I grew up in the lounge of his doctor’s office. I used to love talking to the patients and trying to make them feel better, and some of my favorite childhood memories were my parents and I working on my elementary science fair projects.”

Ozaki says she developed a particular interest in cancer research because the disease has affected so many people in her life.

“My grandfather, who is one of my biggest inspirations for pursuing medicine and research, died from lung cancer. My grandmother died of ovarian cancer at an early age, and last year a very close family friend died of bladder cancer. My aunt and uncle have fought cancer battles multiple times. These people constantly inspire me to pursue research and medicine.”

Ozaki has also distinguished herself outside of the lab. She helped re-establish the Science Club and serves as one of the club’s presidents. The Science Club focuses on fostering a community within the W.M. Keck Science Department, hosting dinners and other social activities for faculty, staff, and students as well as alumni networking events. She has also been a dedicated member of Claremont Colleges Against Cancer (CCAC), a student-run organization dedicated to fighting for a cure and providing a support community to all students. In her role as the head of the CCAC Production Committee, she ensured that all club events and fundraisers ran smoothly. Her greatest CCAC accomplishment was organizing the annual Relay for Life, a 12-hour race that raises money for cancer awareness and research and creates a space for people to honor and remember those affected by cancer.

After graduation, Ozaki plans to spend the next two years continuing the fight against cancer in her position as researcher in an ovarian cancer lab at the National Institute of Health’s post-baccalaureate program.

“I love research, but I also love the human interaction you get to do with clinical work. I think I want to head down the path of an MD-PhD, so I get to do both of these things, but I’m excited to get some exposure to those worlds before I decide for sure.”

To all the students continuing on at Scripps, Ozaki hopes they will make the most of their time.

“Talk to and meet as many people as possible while you’re here,” she says. “Everyone has such incredible stories, especially your professors. Never in your life will you be surrounded by so many amazing people, so take advantage of it now.”

For more about the Class of 2016, click here.