We recently interrupted Natalia Ochoa-Zavala’s MCAT studies over the summer to talk about her Stevenson journey, her studies at Santa Clara University (she will complete a degree in neuroscience this spring), and her bright future in medicine.

What is your first memory of being here?

“I think the first memory I have is of Mr. Schmittgens and his eccentric, flamboyant personality in freshman English. Early on, I distinctly remember him saying, ‘I’ll see you all in AP English in four years.’ At the time, I remember feeling embarrassed because I was struggling to keep up. But the realization followed that this is what learning means, that you have to go through challenges in that growth process. And he was right, I did end up in his AP English class.”

How did you become interested in medicine?

“I grew up around hospitals. My older brother has hip rheumatoid arthritis, so very early on I was pushing him in a wheelchair around Stanford or local hospitals, and translating English to Spanish for my family. The physicians and nurses were very kind to me and took time to explain medical terminology to me before I translated for my family to make sure I was saying the right thing. From then on, I thought they were the coolest people ever, and I knew I wanted to do something in a hospital because that’s where I felt the most comfortable engaging with people.”

Why did you choose neuroscience as a major?

“I love the brain. I did a program at Brown University in Rhode Island during my junior summer [at Stevenson], studying brain sciences and brain behavior. I think that was what convinced me that neuro is the place I really love because I still didn’t know what my major would be, and I ended up majoring in neuroscience. I think that summer solidified it for me, just realizing the possibilities of the brain.”

You recently completed a summer internship in neurosurgery. Can you tell us about it?

“My professor at Santa Clara suggested I apply. It is NIH-funded, and they pick 14 students. It was this amazing experience where half is doing research and half is in hospitals. So that’s how I spent my summer at the Ramirez Lab in the Seattle Children’s Research Institute.

“I was doing research on breathing networks in the brain and how they’re related to neurological disorders. It’s the number-one leading cause of death for children or people who have these types of disorders. If we can narrow it down, it would help a lot in terms of at least lengthening their lives a little bit more to help find solutions for the future.”

What would your ambition be from here in medicine?

“I’ve never tried to say it out loud, but I think brain surgery would be great. If I go to medical school, I also think emergency medicine, pediatrics, neurology, and surgery would be my top four in terms of specialties, based on what I know about them.”

What comes up for you from your time at Stevenson?

“One of the first things that I always think about is the School prayer, specifically the words, ‘Give us strength to encounter that which is to come.’ I always thought the words were kind of old-timey and antique the way they were written, but I love words and I love the way it is phrased. And sometimes, out of nowhere, I’ll motivate myself with it.

“I also loved running into old teachers at my brother’s graduation, and how excited they were to hear how I am doing. I think it is a symbol of the strong connections that you build and also learn to build as you go to Stevenson. It made it easier for me to make connections after the pandemic. Knowing that you’ve learned how to hone the ability to make these connections in the community, it’ll be a little bit easier to make them going forward.”