Uncommon People / Juan Ledesma: Persistence and faith

(College Ten '13, applied physics)

Juan Ledesma
Juan Ledesma (photo by Carolyn Lagattuta)

Had anyone looked across the wide field and seen Juan Ledesma transplanting broccoli seedlings, they might not have suspected that, one day, the young man would be doing imaging research at one of the country's foremost cancer centers, MD Anderson in Houston, Texas.

But that's exactly where Ledesma landed last year as part of his applied physics studies at UC Santa Cruz.

The 24-year-old Salinas resident, the son of agriculture laborers, arrived in Santa Cruz from Hartnell Junior College with a $25,000 S-STEM scholarship from the National Science Foundation, and a love for physics and medicine. His professors at UCSC directed him toward medical physics, where he could combine both of his passions by working in radiation oncology. He plans to pursue a Ph.D. in that field.

Driven to succeed, Ledesma not only won the MD Anderson research internship, but also did apprenticeships at the remote sensing lab at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, at the Project Morpheus landing simulator lab at NASA Johnson Space Center in Texas, and did calibration testing at UCSC's Center for Adaptive Optics as part of his studies.

"I think one of the most important qualities of Juan's personality is his persistence and faith in his own ability to succeed," says Dr. Adriane Steinacker, a UCSC physics lecturer and one of Ledesma's advisors.

One day, Ledesma says, he wants to be part of the group that stands up to announce: "Today we have beaten cancer. Today cancer is history."

But, just as importantly, he says, he wants to inspire his siblings and a large circle of cousins not only to graduate from high school but also go to college.

"I want to start a tradition so that, three generations from now, none of my family will be working in the fields," Ledesma says.