July 20, 2020 — CSU Channel Islands (CSUCI) Applied Physics and Mathematics double major Carmen Stepek will be pursing her doctorate in neuro-physics on the Emerald Isle as a Fulbright scholar.

The Class of 2020 graduate will attend the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI) under the Fulbright U.S. Student Program.

“I’m head over heels. This is my top choice. I was always crossing my fingers for this program,” said Stepek, 25, who is living outside of Sacramento right now.

She is scheduled to begin classes Oct. 1 in Ireland, but the COVID-19 pandemic has created a fluid situation, so Stepek is in contact with her Fulbright representative in case of changes in the timeline. Many Fulbright programs have been delayed until January 2021.

While she is at the RCSI in Dublin, Stepek will work on a project that involves applying artificial intelligence (AI) to decode tissue samples from people with Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease as well as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) otherwise known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

“I would like to be a physician scientist which requires a lot more school,” Stepek said. “I’m excited to apply physics with computational approaches to medicine. I really want to work in a lab and be scientist and I have another side that is passionate about helping others. I want to apply my education to help others in need.”

Stepek’s roots are in the Bay Area, in the town of Concord, where she grew up. She moved to Minneapolis, Minnesota with her mother after her parents divorced and her mom remarried. She spent time at the University of Minnesota and CSU Sonoma, then “spent a little time soul-searching” at a community college. Then, a friend told her about CSUCI and had nothing but good things to say about the University.

“I wanted to find a school I was happy with and had support from other people who wanted me to be there,” Stepek said. “At CSUCI I found all of that and more.”

Stepek’s dad is a hydrogeologist who works for the state of California and her mother is a social worker. Stepek found her interests to be a mix of both, just as she is a mix of her dad’s Polish and her mother’s African American roots.

Stepek decided to major in Applied Physics and Mathematics, then began to carve out a career path for herself with help from Associate Professor of Mathematics Cynthia Flores, Ph.D., who mentored Stepek’s undergraduate research projects and recommended her for the Fulbright Scholarship.

“She’s been focused and determined and will be a strong role model to future physicists, including CSUCI students, women, and populations of color,” Flores said. “I’m so fortunate to have had her as part of my research group.”

Stepek said Flores was not only helpful, but a role model who truly understood her dreams.

“She’s also a woman of color in a field where men have dominated for decades if not centuries, ”Stepek said. “It was sometimes hard to push through, and Dr. Flores was so supportive of my education. I’ve cried in her office, and she’s always been there for me.”

Stepek also credited Professor of Physics Greg Wood, Ph.D., who encouraged her to enter the field of physics, and Biology Lecturer Caryl Ann Becerra, Ph.D., who encouraged Stepek to present her research at an academic conference.

“She pushed me out of my comfort zone and got me to realize that if I don’t try, that’s an automatic failure,” Stepek said.

This is not Stepek’s first academic journey to Ireland. She spent the summer of 2019 at Trinity College in Dublin through Cooperative International Science and Engineering Internships. It was such an enriching experience for her, she wanted to pursue more education overseas. When she finishes her post-graduate education, including medical school, she wants to become a pediatric neurologist.

Flores has no doubt Stepek will accomplish her goals and more.

“Carmen is tenacious and gritty -- she's a true CSUCI Dolphin,” Flores said. “It has been my honor to be a part of her undergraduate experience.”

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