Ask 24-year-old Eric Muñoz ’05 about his academic background before becoming a scholar at one of the nation’s premier medical research institutes and he’ll admit to being an unlikely candidate for is latest success.
As a high school student in his native South Pasadena, near Los Angeles, he struggled bitterly, showing little interest in science or other subjects. He was accepted at just two colleges after graduating, including being conditionally admitted to the University of San Francisco. But, once enrolled, he began a dramatic intellectual turn around inspired by the professors he befriended and the goal he came to embrace of making a career out of serving other people, Muñoz said.
At USF, he met professors and “actual scientists” whose work piqued his interest in testing and discovering nature’s inner workings. “I transformed from the ‘C’ student that I was in high school into a medical student who is passionate about science,” said Muñoz, now in the middle of a yearlong fellowship with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute/National Institutes of Health (HHMI/NIH) in Bethesda, Md.
A biology major with a minor in chemistry, Muñoz was awarded the Dean’s Medal for Excellence in the Sciences and the Spirit of St. Francis prize, the latter for his extensive volunteer work for organizations like the Haight Ashbury Food Program, the St. Anthony Homeless Shelter, and as a patient visitor in the oncology unit of the University of California, San Francisco.
“The countless opportunities to volunteer my time helped me realize that I wanted to enter a service-based profession, such as medicine, where I could also apply my interest in the sciences,” Muñoz said.
Currently between his second and third years of medical school at Oregon Health and Science University, Muñoz will take a bit longer to graduate than his classmates, after being accepted into the HHMI-NIH Research Scholars Program. He is one of 42 scholars in this year’s program, including five graduates of Harvard and two from the University of California, Berkeley.
Working under the direction of a senior NIH research scientist, Muñoz studies the cause of spinal muscular atrophy, a degenerative disease affecting the nerve cells in the spinal cord that are used by the brain to control muscles. It’s a training ground, and one of the best around, to his career goal of working as a medical researcher to bridge the gap between the discoveries of research scientists and the needs of doctors and patients, Muñoz said.
Upon completing the yearlong fellowship, he plans to return to Portland for two more years of medical school before residency training.