Meet Our Majors

Meet some of our biology majors.

Theo Bortz ’22

Hometown: Brooklyn, NY
Major: biology; minor: neuroscience

What was your motivation to major in Biology?

From a young age, I have been fascinated by the cellular and molecular underpinnings of biological processes. I pictured an undiscovered, untouched world that felt as new and mysterious as the cosmos. When it was time to choose my major, I knew it needed to be something that would be both intellectually engaging and appropriate for my future medical school endeavors. Biology felt like the obvious choice!

Have you taken part in any student research opportunities at Oxy?

Participating in research has been a significant part of my undergraduate career, and is one of the standout reasons why I chose to come to Oxy. I started out doing research in inorganic chemistry with Professor Despagnet-Ayoub. I then shadowed neuroscience research in Professor Thompson’s lab, followed by my current position conducting an independent research project in the bacteriology lab with Professor Okumura.

Participating in research has been a significant part of my undergraduate career, and is one of the standout reasons why I chose to come to Oxy.

What are your ambitions post-Oxy and how has the liberal arts approach helped to shape these ambitions?

The liberal arts approach has helped me develop as a pre-med student by providing a multidisciplinary approach to STEM. It has made me realize that scientists do not exist within a vacuum; we need to develop a balanced understanding of how the world works—beyond what happens in the lab. After graduating from Oxy, I intend on taking a two-year break to work as a clinical research coordinator at a hospital. Through a program like this, I hope to enrich my path to medical school by gaining the necessary clinical insight and research experience.

Do you have any advice for a student considering a major in biology?

Don’t be afraid to pursue your intellectual curiosities outside of biology. Consider taking classes in history, studio art, religion, geology, language, film—or whatever interests you. Take advantage of your liberal arts education! I guarantee it will make you a more well-rounded scientist and human being.

What is the “vibe” of the biology department?

The biology department seeks to foster a supportive vibe for all its members. I have developed such strong relationships with my professors and peers, and I know I can truly rely on them as part of my support network at Oxy.


Alana Pizarro ’22

Hometown: Pasadena, CA
Major: biology (pre-veterinary)

What was your motivation to major in biology?

I chose to major in biology because of my interest and investment in animals and the environment. After a couple years of sampling classes and feeling unsure about what major to choose, I accepted an internship at a wildlife rehabilitation hospital. This work was the motivation I needed to realize that a future in the field of animal welfare/research, conservation and environment was what I wanted to pursue. 

Can you describe your working relationships with biology professors? Are there any standout classes you’ve taken?

Professors in the biology department are the absolute best. Every single bio professor has been kind, considerate, thoughtful, helpful and so much more. Especially as I’ve gotten into some of the higher-level bio courses, I’ve found that spending time with my professors in class or in the lab is always a comfortable experience. There have been so many standout classes/professors: “General Zoology” with Professor Goffredi, “Biostatistics” with Professor Zellmer and “Microbial Pathogenesis” with Professor Okumura, to name a few. My favorite biology course has without a doubt been “Avian Biology” with Professor McCormack, which helped me realize a passion for ornithology and birding that I know I will carry with me for the rest of life. 

The fact that Oxy is not a “research institution” is actually a huge benefit for you. The opportunities saved for graduate students and postdocs at larger universities are available to you here.

Have you taken part in any student research opportunities at Oxy?

I work and conduct research at the Moore Lab of Zoology with Professor McCormack. I am so grateful for this experience. It’s allowed me to learn about natural history museum curation/management and specimen preparation and at the same time exposed me to the world of evolutionary and ornithological research. My senior comps project focuses on a hybrid zone on the Western coast of Mexico of Magpie-Jays of the genus Calocitta. I use both historical (museum specimens) and modern (iNaturalist sightings) data to measure the distribution of White- and Black-throated Magpie-Jays down the coast and to assess any movement of their hybrid zone over time.

What are your ambitions post-Oxy and how has the liberal arts approach helped to shape these ambitions?

Pursuing a STEM education at a liberal arts college has been extremely grounding. It has helped me understand the intersectionality of all disciplines within and outside of STEM. Because of this, I would love to get some experience as a working biologist for some time after graduation. After a few years of work, I expect the combination of my liberal arts education and work experience will help me with applications to graduate or veterinary school. 

Do you have any advice for a student considering a major in biology?

Sample around as much as you can! It’s important to expose yourself to both a range of courses but also to meet as many of the faculty as possible. You should also know that this major is quite lab-heavy. Don’t neglect labs! They are often the key to really understanding concepts presented in lectures. Lastly, understand that the fact that Oxy is not a “research institution” is actually a huge benefit for you. All of the biology faculty run stellar research labs that are populated by undergrads. The opportunities saved for graduate students and postdocs at larger universities are available to you here at Oxy. Learn about your professors’ research and reach out to them if you are at all interested in their work!


Joseph Shiina ’22

Hometown: Osaka, Japan
Majors: biology

Can you describe your working relationships with biology professors? Are there any standout classes you’ve taken?

All of my professors have been extremely helpful with regards to preparing me for post-undergrad. Whenever I am seeking advice for my research, I consult professors that can provide answers to questions that are specific to their specialty. Guidance from multiple professors has helped me plan my career and consider all of the opportunities that may suit my ambitions after I graduate. My favorite class I have taken at Oxy was “Plant Form and Function” taught by Dr. Gretchen North, because plants are awesome. Another course I highly recommend taking is “Broader Impacts of Biology” taught by Dr. Amanda Zellmer, as it helped me understand the kinds of changes a scientist can make in society beyond the advancement of knowledge in STEM. 

Have you taken part in any student research opportunities at Oxy?

I participated in the Summer Research Program at Oxy in 2020 and 2021. SRP provided me the opportunity to experience what it’s like to carry out a fully independent research project, from designing the experiment to presenting the results at a conference. My research has been focused on how plants cope with various stress conditions. During the two summers, I worked on identifying whether the use of distinct photosynthetic pathways affect a plant’s heat and drought tolerance. Currently, I am studying how plants communicate via Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) for my senior comps project. Certain plants emit VOCs in response to insect herbivory, which can then be perceived by unharmed neighboring plants, eliciting defense responses to prepare for an attack. A better understanding of such defense strategies could yield alternative agricultural practices that reduce the use of pesticides. 

The liberal arts approach helped me reflect on the broader impacts of science and how scientists can bring about social change through outreach.

What do you find most compelling about studying biology?

The most compelling part about studying biology is the way it changes your outlook on the environment we live in. Each time we learn something new about an organism, our perception and sense of appreciation for that organism changes. The knowledge we gain about the way species are interlinked guides our own identity and how we as a species are related to life around us. 

What are your ambitions post-Oxy and how has the liberal arts approach helped to shape these ambitions?

My current career goal is to become a biology professor at a college due to my combined interest in research and teaching. The liberal arts approach helped me reflect on the broader impacts of science and how scientists can bring about social change through outreach. My mission is to contribute to advancing knowledge in biology through research in addition to bridging the gap that exists between scientists and the general public through education. 

Do you have any advice for a student considering a major in biology?

Join a lab as soon as you find a professor you would like to work with. People tend to overlook the benefits of joining a lab apart from the experiences you gain from the lab activities. It gave me the chance to form closer relationships with professors and upperclassmen who provided me guidance throughout my years at Oxy. I had access to more information about opportunities that are available outside of Oxy, including internships, scholarships and science conferences. Joining a lab early on will also make it possible to switch labs and work with multiple professors while at Oxy.


Julissa Larios ’22

Hometown: East Los Angeles, CA and Jalisco, Mexico
Major: biology

What was your motivation to major in biology?

As a first-generation college student that started out as pre-med, I wanted to major in biology because I felt like it would provide me with the experiences that would prepare me for medical school while giving me the opportunity to learn more about other aspects of biology as a whole. When I declared my major at the end of sophomore year, I was no longer pre-med but I remained in biology because of classes like “Zoology,” “Cell Biology” and “Histology” that helped me discover biology in a new light and led me to see a new research-based career path in the sciences that felt like a better fit for me.

Can you describe your working relationships with Biology professors? Are there any standout classes you’ve taken?

The professors in the biology department are all welcoming and supportive. They push me to think critically and carefully through labs, classes, field trips and research. After going to La Selva Biological Research Station in Costa Rica with Professors Goffredi, Braker and North, they became important mentors for me. I feel like I can always go to them to talk about classes, research or just to check in. My favorite classes overall have been “Zoology,” “Cell Biology,” “Flora of Southern California,” “Histology” and “Microbial Pathogenesis.”

My time at Oxy has led me to think critically about social justice, and I hope to work towards making science more accessible for both the next generation of scientists and the general public.

Have you taken part in any student research opportunities at Oxy or elsewhere?

I have done research with Professor Goffredi in the Symbiosis lab since the second half of my first year. In this lab, I have explored the animal-bacterial partnerships of deep-sea crabs, stink bugs and now grunion parasites! In addition to doing research with Professor Goffredi, I interned for the Organization of Tropical Studies this past year, where I created accessible science content with Professor Braker. Outside of Oxy, I participated in the National Summer Undergraduate Research Project (NSURP) this summer, where I researched the microbiome of eelgrass. I found out about this opportunity thanks to an Oxy alum that encouraged me to apply!

What are your ambitions post-Oxy and how has the liberal arts approach helped to shape these ambitions?

I am in the process of looking for and applying to research fellowships and post baccalaureate programs. After taking a gap year, I want to apply to biology Ph.D. programs so I can one day lead my own lab. The liberal arts education I have received at Oxy has helped me develop as a scientist, pushing me to consider my intentions as I continue in STEM. My time at Oxy has led me to think critically about social justice, and I hope to work towards making science more accessible for both the next generation of scientists and the general public.

Do you have any advice for a student considering a major in biology?

To any students considering biology, I suggest you give the major a try. I know that entering STEM can be daunting at times, but there are people willing to support you along the way. As you navigate the major, ask questions, go to office hours and ask for extra resources. I also advise you to join STEM organizations on campus and to get involved with research. The professors want to see you succeed and so do the students. YOU GOT THIS!


Alejandra Herrera ’22

Hometown: Chicago, IL
Major: biology (cellular and molecular concentration)

Can you describe your working relationships with biology professors? Are there any standout classes you’ve taken? 

Throughout my time at Oxy, I have developed many strong relationships with professors in the biology department. I especially want to thank the women in the biology department who inspire me and support my future endeavors. One of the classes I am grateful I took was “The Biology and Epidemiology of COVID-19,” which was co-taught by Dr. Roberta Pollock and Dr. Kim Shriner ’80. I had the unique opportunity to study the pandemic in real time through lectures and speaker events from experts in different fields. It was a memorable experience to see the intersection of science, public health and social justice, and hear about how collaboration addresses our unique experiences and challenges.

Have you taken part in any student research opportunities at Oxy?

In 2021 I had the opportunity to work with the Undergraduate Research Center, which has a summer research program in which I conducted faculty-mentored research for 10 weeks. My research focuses on vaccine development of a disease in horses called “Pigeon’s Fever,” which is caused by the bacterium Corynebacterium pseudotuberculosis. With Dr. Pollock and Dr. Molinder’s mentorship, I was able to study both B-cell and T-cell responses by testing mouse sera samples against C. pseudotuberculosis antigens.

Courses from American studies, public health and psychology have emphasized the importance of incorporating social justice issues in the world of science.

What do you find most compelling about studying biology?

There are so many routes you can take while studying biology. Personally, I am fascinated by the changes and functions in the human body. Our bodies are complex, and if one thing fails, it can affect so many different parts. Taking courses like “Cell Biology,” “Histology” and “Vertebrate Physiology” have helped me understand the many different processes our bodies go through to keep us alive.

What are your ambitions post-Oxy and how has the liberal arts approach helped to shape these ambitions?

I am pursuing a career as a physician because I want to elevate the health of marginalized communities in urban areas. I want to return to communities that are congruent with those that helped mold and impact my childhood. The liberal arts approach has helped shape my ambitions by exposing me to more than just STEM-based classes. Courses from American studies, public health and psychology have emphasized the importance of incorporating social justice issues in the world of science. I am passionate about healthcare and the medical aspects of it, but I also would like to address the health disparities certain communities face and provide them with the best fit in terms of care.

Do you have any advice for a student considering a major in biology? 

My biggest advice is to go to office hours and talk to your professors. The professors in the biology department have been my biggest advocates. They are here to support you and help you succeed in your classes. Also, they are genuinely great people and fun to talk to!


Cole Ivie ’23

Hometown: Agoura Hills, CA
Major: biology; minor: French Studies

What was your motivation to major in biology?

I am majoring in biology because I wanted to study a subject that would allow me to better understand the world, stay interested throughout my career path and allow me to spend a good amount of time outdoors. Ever since I was little, Steve Irwin was my hero and I always wanted to be a marine biologist. After contemplating several different possible career paths, including becoming a surgeon or a French-English translator, I finally decided on what I was really looking for when I took marine biology in the spring of my first year.

Have you taken part in any student research opportunities at Oxy?

I have been working and volunteering with Oxy’s Vantuna Research Group for a little over a year and a half now and I would say it is a great way to get involved in the physical side of studying biology and field work, and exploring any interest in marine biology. It is very interesting to have real-life, hands-on experience with full fledged biologists and see how they conduct experiments, gather and analyze data, and convey results.

What do you find most compelling about studying biology?

I enjoy studying biology because it allows me to better understand how our planet and environment work. For me it is very thrilling to come closer and closer to the truth with every experiment conducted. The more we understand our world, the more we can do to protect it.

It is so interesting to have real-life, hands-on experience with full fledged biologists and see how they conduct experiments, gather and analyze data, and convey results. 

What are your ambitions post-Oxy and how has the liberal arts approach helped to shape these ambitions?

After Oxy, I would like to spend some time conducting research and gaining more experience and then continue on to graduate school. Before Oxy, I had no idea what I wanted to study. I am very grateful for the liberal arts experience because it allowed me to explore my interests and really discover what I was into. I honestly hadn't even considered studying biology before I came to Oxy and found myself in some very interesting bio courses.

Do you have any advice for a student considering a major in biology?

If you aren't sure about biology, I would suggest getting outside and experiencing what a career in biology would actually involve. Whether that is by taking a more hands-on course like “Field Ecology” or by volunteering for a lab or any group conducting scientific experiments, the best way to understand what you want to do is to go out and actually try it. Biology has tons of opportunities for you to get your hands dirty without already having a complete understanding of the subject.

What is the “vibe” of the biology department?

The biology department is very focused yet relaxed. The main goal of our biology department is to make sure that we are understanding what we are learning and that when they are done with us we will be fully prepared to go into whatever field of biology we would like. Faculty are very good at making sure that each and every one of us is getting the attention we need and trying to make it a fun learning experience rather than a strict one like you might see at a larger school.


Anahy Lizarraga ’23

Hometown: Pomona, CA
Major: biology; minor: public health

What was your motivation to major in biology? 

I knew I wanted to be a STEM major in high school, but I did not know what science route to take. When I came to Oxy, one of the first science-related classes I took was “Zoology,” which ended up influencing my decision to be a biology major. The class was very engaging and interactive and the instructor, Dr. Goffredi, made the course a memorable experience. Going to lab each week was my favorite part because we were able to apply the information we learned in class and visualize traits and structures of different species. Towards the end of the semester, my interest in participating in research grew. 

Have you taken part in any student research opportunities at Oxy?

In the summer of 2021, I participated in the Summer Research Program under the mentorship of Dr. Goffredi in the biology department. I investigated the microbial community of a marine blood-sucking Branchellion leech by conducting live animal experiments, fluorescence microscopy and microbial analysis. I also participated in the Symbiosis research team. I learned and improved my presentation, teamwork, leadership and writing skills. Today, I am continuing with this research project to gather the final results and learn how to analyze the data. 

Everyone I have met so far during my time at Oxy ... is very welcoming. They are open to answer any questions and provide advice on academics or future career options.

What are your ambitions post-Oxy and how has the liberal arts approach helped to shape these ambitions?

My goal is to attend medical school to become a doctor. Attending a liberal arts college like Oxy has helped me obtain research opportunities that I may not have had at a larger university. Oxy’s courses on public health and the history of medicine have helped me think about the medical field in a different way that is not solely science-focused. During my time at Oxy, I have joined different clubs such as the Pre-Health Association and BEARS (Biology Equity and Advocacy Representatives), a biology major student mentorship program. I appreciate these clubs because I have received a lot of useful advice from my mentors. I have also learned about preparing for medical school from guest speakers and other Oxy pre-med students.

Do you have any advice for a student considering a major in biology?

Start taking biology-related courses and see if you enjoy the material. Ask upper-class biology students to give you insight into the major and what classes they recommend. Try to go to any events offered by the department and get to know other students in the major. Do not be afraid to ask questions because everyone is willing to help. 

What is the “vibe” of the biology department?

Everyone I have met so far during my time at Oxy, including faculty and students, is very welcoming. They are open to answer any questions and provide advice on academics or future career options.

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