Finding his way—with a little help

All alumnus Patrick Bailey needed was some support, which he found in the Summer Research Experience program at UC Santa Cruz; this year, he defied the odds by earning a Ph.D. in biochemistry and molecular biology, and is now doing cancer research

Patrick Bailey shown working in the lab
With help from the Summer Research Experience program at UC Santa Cruz, alumnus Patrick Bailey overcame early life traumas and got into graduate school. This year, he earned a doctorate in biochemistry and molecular biology, and is now doing cancer research at the University of Maryland, Baltimore.

Patrick Bailey was broke. It was 2008 and the bottom had dropped out of the economy. He and his girlfriend had both lost their jobs and, eventually, their house. Then, one night, he watched Fight Club.

Bailey had grown up rough, living on the streets and dealing drugs when he was young, and as he watched a scene in the 1999 movie starring Brad Pitt and Edward Norton, something clicked. In the scene, Brad Pitt’s character holds a gun to the head of a convenience store clerk, demands his identification, and asks the man what he wanted to be when he grew up. When the puzzled clerk says he wanted to be a veterinarian, Pitt’s character tells the man he’ll check back in six months and if the clerk isn’t taking steps toward his goal, he’ll murder him.

“I saw that and thought, ‘I’d wanted to be a veterinarian too,’” said Bailey (College Nine ’15, biochemistry and molecular biology). He’d been taking classes at Cabrillo College, thinking he’d major in philosophy, but after the movie, decided to work toward a degree in veterinary medicine.  

Along the way, the man who some people said never had a future fell in love with biology and chemistry and got into graduate school thanks to the Summer Research Experience program at UC Santa Cruz, which receives funding from Monterey Bay Aquarium Director and alumna Julie Packard (Crown ’74, biology; MA, ’78). This year, he earned a doctorate in biochemistry and molecular biology, and is now doing cancer research at the University of Maryland, Baltimore.

“I was just overjoyed that he’d done it (got his Ph.D.),” said UC Santa Cruz STEM Diversity Office Director Yulianna Ortega of Bailey, who was in the first cohort of Packard Scholars. “There were many obstacles that could have deterred Patrick from going on, but his resilience paid off, as did his talents.” 

Ortega added that stories like Patrick’s demonstrate the importance and impact of philanthropic support.

“With her help, we are changing the directions of students’ lives. We focus our efforts on students with the greatest needs—for example, community college transfer students, who have fewer opportunities to gain research experience,” said Ortega. “We know that there will be more students like Patrick in the future.”  

Indeed, two-thirds of all the students who have been supported by this program have gone on to STEM careers after graduation.

A rough beginning

Bailey, now 43, grew up dirt poor. He and his single mom lived in the woods and then in a converted horse barn on a communal farm on the northern edge of Santa Cruz. Food and money were scarce and so was supervision. 

“I was a wild child,” Bailey said by phone from his Maryland home. “I did what I wanted because no one was watching. I ran amok. By the time my mom realized she needed to do something about it, it was too late. I was already set in my ways. I was on my way to becoming what I was going to be.”

He dropped out of high school at 16, couch-surfed or squatted in vacant buildings, became addicted to drugs and, by the time he was 19, he was selling them on the street. But a near-death experience changed everything and Bailey turned to Christianity. He got clean. 

The other part of Bailey’s story was that he’d always been intelligent. While high school bored him, he got top grades in junior college and earned high marks when he transferred to UC Santa Cruz. However, because of circumstances, he wasn’t able to get into a research lab his junior year, and so, in spite of his academic record, didn’t get a single interview after applying to graduate schools his senior year.

That’s where the UC Santa Cruz STEM Diversity Office and the Packard Scholars program stepped in. Bailey was one of 10 students awarded an eight-week, paid summer internship in a research lab. The program was funded through Packard's support of the Dean’s Fund for Diversity in Science in the Division of Physical and Biological Sciences. 

This time, because of his research experience, Bailey won multiple interviews and was accepted into every program that had conversations with him. He chose the University of Maryland, Baltimore, where he completed his Ph.D. in less than four years and is now a post-doc fellow. The overarching theme of his research involves how, in some cases, chemotherapy may actually contribute to cancer relapse after therapy.  

Finding answers

Now married and the father of an 8-year-old daughter, Bailey said no one gave him a shot until he got to college. No one told him in high school about grants or scholarships available for low-income students, he said. Nobody said there was a chance for him to get a UC degree. 

But, later, there was a group of women who did take a chance on him, Bailey said. They included Sue Tappero, former director of the Math, Engineering, Science Achievement Program at Cabrillo College; Ortega and Malika Bell of the UC Santa Cruz STEM Diversity Office; Claudia Parrish of the campus Services for Transfer and Re-entry (STARS) program, who is now retired; and, of course, Packard.

Bailey said if there was one thing he could tell students who don’t think they could go to college, it would be to never count themselves out. But he grew quiet when asked if there was a part of his personality that helped him succeed.  

“Maybe it’s that I’ve been through a lot in life and made it through a lot of hard things, and I knew my abilities,” he said finally. “Because science is hard. It’s a fickle taskmaster, the hardest thing you’ll do in life.

“But for every 10 failed experiments, there is the one that works, and there is no other feeling in the world like it. It’s something you create from your thoughts. You put an experiment together, collaborate to make it happen, and then you watch it come out the other side … and there you are answering a question no one ever answered before, and, for all the heartache and pain, it’s so worth it.”