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In just two years, USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology student Maria Oorloff, a graduating senior in human development and aging, went from having almost no experience with science to being honored for her research and academic achievements.

Oorloff, a research scholar in the USC Gerontology Enriching Medicine, Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (GEMSTEM) to Enhance Diversity in Aging program, recently received first prize in the Life Sciences II category at the USC Undergraduate Symposium for Scholarly and Creative Work and was named to the Order of Arête. She also received the 2024 Undergraduate Student Award from the USC Leonard Davis School.

“I am a first-generation, low-income student, and I came into the lab with limited experience, both in scientific knowledge and research experience. I really struggled with the fundamental science and was extremely nervous, but I always worked hard, and both soul and dedication were my strengths,” Oorloff said. “I definitely have imposter syndrome. … I think this is extremely important to tell all the students who come from my background that we do belong here.”

Oorloff conducted research in the laboratory of Assistant Professor Ryo Sanabria and studied how mechanical stress impacts the aging process.

“Mechanical stress refers to any kind of physical stress, but what I specifically looked at was the stress that comes from growth on stiffer substrates,” she explained. “My research found that exposure to stiffer substrates can have dramatic impact on cellular processes, which can impact longevity. This research is important for both aging and cancer biology, because both cancer cells and aged organs are in stiffer microenvironments.”

Following graduation, Oorloff will begin a clinical research position at Cedars-Sinai. She will also stay involved with her project, as it has been submitted for peer review and publication. In the future, she hopes to eventually pursue an MD/PhD program.

“I have really enjoyed and found a new love for research, and I believe that my next step in clinical research will help me fuse my love of research with my passion in medicine,” she said. “My experiences in the Sanabria lab and at the Leonard Davis School at USC have changed my life in every way for the better.”

Oorloff said the mentorship she received at the USC Leonard Davis School has been immensely impactful.

“Dr. Sanabria has been a major positive influence in my life [and] has really helped me become the person I am today. It has been such an honor to be mentored by someone who comes from a similar background and is willing to help their trainees succeed,” she said. “Dr. Tara Mastro, my honors professor, also provided me with so much guidance. The environment that the GEMSTEM program and the Leonard Davis School provided me was truly exceptional, and I know I would not have been successful without this incredibly nurturing environment and all the friends I made here.”

Oorloff’s mentor, Sanabria, praised her hard work and transformation from “shy and terrified” new researcher to leader and accomplished scientist in their lab.

“Maria was a true blessing to have in the lab, and watching her growth as a person, scholar, and scientist was one of the most enjoyable and rewarding experiences I’ve ever had,” Sanabria said. “This is a person who did not break barriers – she outwardly decimated and shattered them into oblivion in her journey to success. More importantly, she walks with her head held high and forward-facing, not dwelling on these challenges, never victimizing herself, never using these barriers as an excuse, but constantly pushing towards her goals in an undeniably incredible way.”

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