UA graduate Mariajose Franco turns tragedy into passion for cancer research

Updated: May. 10, 2019 at 4:50 PM MST
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TUCSON, AZ (KOLD News 13) - Mariajose Franco’s time at the University of Arizona has been nothing short of impressive.

Franco is graduating with honors and with dual degrees in molecular and cellular biology and physiology.

“The word that I would use is surreal,” Franco said. She has won awards, was selected for the highly competitive “Maximizing Access to Research Careers” program, and completed an internship at the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

“I just look back and I think I’ve improved so much,” she said. For Mariajose, however, her time at the UA is about so much more than just her accomplishments. This has been a journey fueled by tragedy and passion.

“They say that when tragedy happens to you, you never forget,” she said.

Mariajose was born in the U.S. but grew up in Mexicali, Mexico. She and her sister moved to Gilbert to live with their aunt. Mariajose was 15 years old and her younger sister was 14.

“I definitely underestimated how hard it is to move to a different country. You have to learn a different system, the language itself, you have to adapt to a different culture,” Franco said.

Despite the difficulties, the sisters had each other to rely on. “It just felt like I had the potential to just keep moving forward because she was along side me,” Franco said.

A year later, that support system crumbled. Alejandra was diagnosed with an aggressive form of leukemia and passed away at the age of 15. “She was hospitalized at Phoenix children’s hospital for nine months. Her cancer was so aggressive that chemotherapy was not working,” Franco said.

Franco said as she watched her sister go through treatments and clinical trials, her passion for cancer research started to grow.

“I just doctors helping my sister and because of that I wanted to become a physician, a pediatric oncologist, specially. But in my mind, I thought I want to be that professional who talks to the patients but also gets to design the new therapies.”

Franco started at the U of A and soon found what she was looking for.

“My mentor was investigating a type of pediatric cancer. I reached out to her and asked if I could have a position in her laboratory,” she said.

Franco has spent the last two years at the University of Arizona Cancer Center, blending her passion for research and medicine. “My sister inspires me everyday. I can feel her inside of me every day,” Franco said.

As she closes one chapter in her journey, she’s getting ready to take the next step. She’ll head to Maryland in June, where she’ll complete a postpac program at the National Institute of Health. Franco plans to pursue an M.D. and Ph.D.

“I chose to use that event in my life as my source of motivation instead of something that will keep holding me back or something that will keep me from continuing moving forward,” Franco said.

Copyright 2019 KOLD News 13. All rights reserved.