Karen Trang holds a baby during her Jan Term trip to Ethiopia.

Remember the name Karen Trang.

The recently graduated Saint Mary’s senior is one to watch. Trang’s name showed up repeatedly in the Commencement program last weekend. She won Saint Mary’s highest honor, the De Le Salle Award, given for the highest record for scholarship and general excellence. Trang also won the Linus Pauling Award for her outstanding record as a biochemistry major.

And in April, Trang won a $5,000 Community Service Scholarship from the Orinda-Moraga-Lafayette Branch of the American Association of University Women, for her academic excellence and community service.

The native San Franciscan and Lowell High School grad attributes much of her success to her Saint Mary’s experience.

“Saint Mary’s was the best decision of my life. The science classes are just as rigorous as at many larger research universities. I scored in the 99th percentile for the MCATs and I didn’t have to take any extra preparatory courses,” said Trang, who plans to apply to medical school while working at an internship at the University of California, San Francisco this coming school year.

Attending such a small college gave her the chance to work closely with professors willing to chat with students after hours, and to work directly with animals and with the human biogenome’s map of our genetic material, Trang said.

In her biochemistry work with Professor Vidya Chandrasekaran at Saint Mary’s, Trang helped investigate why neurons grow, and learned how to plan experiments and think like a scientist. She also worked for one summer as an intern at Onyx Pharmaceuticals in South San Francisco, researching chemotherapy drugs. Now she works in experimental medicine at a UCSF lab at San Francisco General Hospital, studying how and where the HIV virus hides in the body. “We are trying to completely wipe out HIV,” she said.

Once in medical school, Trang hopes to do research in translational medicine––converting research findings into medicines, diagnostic tools, procedures, policies and education—“working out the kinks in test tubes and then making it useful in a medical setting.”

During her four years on campus, Trang volunteered with Peer Health Exchange, an organization that trains college students to teach a comprehensive health curriculum in public high schools that lack health education. She volunteered as a teacher, then became the co-coordinator, and led the Saint Mary’s chapter during her sophomore and junior years, which taught more than 500 high school freshmen in Oakland at Skyline and McClymonds high schools, and Lighthouse Community Charter School.

She also volunteered for Contra Costa County’s Winter Nights Shelter, which houses homeless families in churches, tutoring children and adults. Most recently, Trang tutored members of the Oakland Warthogs Youth Rugby Program, which requires players to maintain a 2.0 GPA.

In her rare free time, Trang likes to run (she ran the Nike Women’s Marathon in San Francisco), and she reads.

“I’m a bit of a bookworm,” she said. “I’ve been reading Anna Karenina. I read a lot of science writing. And I like cheesy romance novels. It’s really bad for you but it’s so good.” And Trang’s favorite part of attending Saint Mary’s? The kind and supportive community. While academic places are always competitive, she said, it’s refreshing to be where teachers don’t foster cutthroat competition and students don’t engage in it either.

“You can really be happy for other people’s accomplishments,” said Trang, describing her classmates always happily lending her their notes, despite her consistently high grades. “There’s no, ‘Well she doesn’t need them anyway because she’s so smart.’ There’s nothing like that at Saint Mary’s. Everyone’s willing to share their data, and help each other with homework.”

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