Searching for the Right Chemistry

Goldwater recipient plans to dedicate his life to developing better treatments for cancer patients.



By Mary Beth Erskine News Writer


Juan Baso




Juan Baso had a tough time believing that he was one of USF’s first two recipients ever of the prestigious national Goldwater Award.


Beginning at 6:30 a.m. on the day the award recipients were to be named, his mobile phone glued to his palm, he continually checked the Goldwater website. He was headed to a Latin class when the list posted. He scanned the page. He spotted his name.


He took a bye on Latin.


In humble disbelief and amazement, Baso diverted directly to Arnaldo Mejias, the coordinator of USF’s Office of National Scholarships, who had encouraged him to apply and assisted with the process.


Awarded annually, Barry M. Goldwater Scholarships are the premier undergraduate award of its kind. Only 278 Goldwater Scholars were named for the 2010-2011 academic year – two from USF, which includes biology major Amber Schmidt. Baso and Schmidt were selected for the highly competitive scholarship from a field of 1,111 mathematics, science and engineering students nominated nationwide. In addition to an annual $7,500 scholarship, Goldwater Scholars garner the attention of prestigious graduate schools and post-graduate fellowship programs.


“I told Mr. Mejias that I never thought it would happen,” says Baso. “I still can’t believe it. The best part about the award is that it will be a great stepping stone towards the things I want to do with my life.”


Or, put in perspective, the things Baso wants to do with his life for others. Baso plans to earn a PhD in synthetic organic chemistry and then work in oncological therapeutics drug discovery and design. His goal is to help develop safer, more effective drugs for cancer patients.


For Baso, it’s a goal that has evolved slowly – challenge by challenge – as poignant pieces of his life have come together.


Born in New Orleans and raised in Tampa, Baso is a first-generation American whose family fled Cuba at the start of the communist revolution. During his childhood years, his father was seriously injured on the job and out of work for some time. His mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. In addition to dealing with those difficulties, Baso was forced to change elementary schools multiple times, which made learning during those years challenging.


“At one point, my family lost everything, and for a brief time we were homeless.”


While his mother, father and sister were fortunate to have family to fall back on, it was a defining time for Baso. “I decided that I had to break out of the cycle of that kind of life. I also knew that I wasn’t going to do it by being a music or sports star,” he says with a smile. “So I had to do it through education.”


Fortunately by eighth grade, thanks to an insightful and sympathetic teacher, Baso moved into honors classes, found challenging coursework, and improved academically. He was preparing well for high school when forced to confront heartbreak yet again. His best friend was diagnosed with cancer.

“One day, totally out of the blue, he had excruciating pain,” says Baso. “There was a football-size tumor pressing against his lung caused by TC lymphoma.”

From the emergency room, to surgery, to a four-month stay in the hospital, Baso remained by his friend’s side. Little did he realize at the time, that the daily visits after school would help determine the course of his life.

“I watched a lot of kids fight with cancer and with treatments,” he says. And while his friend survived, Baso saw other children die. “I was at the age when you think that you’re invincible. It makes you wonder if everything possible was being done to help these kids. It was at that time that I started to take my education seriously. I decided I wanted to contribute in some way.”

Attracted to USF because of the opportunity to participate in meaningful research as an undergraduate, Baso became the first in his family to attend college. And it was while taking organic chemistry that he realized that through chemistry, he could make a difference he desired.

“There are a lot of good physicians treating cancer patients, but all they can do is take the tools that are available and do the best they can with them. What they really need are new tools, treatments and therapies. Chemistry enables you to form new bonds, manipulate molecules and create new molecules, and, thereby, create new tools for treatment.”

Accepted into USF’s Honors College, Baso had the opportunity to become involved with research in his sophomore year aimed at exactly that – developing methodologies that can be applied to the creation of new, more effective and less costly cancer drugs. Now employed as a research assistant in the lab of Assistant Chemistry Professor Jon Antilla, Baso has co-authored a paper published in the American Chemical Society’s Organic Letters and has presented at conferences around the country. He believes that cancer research with its current focus on the pH levels of cancer cells that affect cancer’s acidity is “going in the right direction” and that within the next 20 years there will be radical breakthroughs in treatment.

“What matters most to me is what I leave behind – to be able to say one day that I made a contribution to society,” says Baso. “And research offers the potential to do that.”

Baso compares research to fumbling around in the dark for a light switch. “But once you find that switch and you can turn on the light, you can make progress. And it’s a great feeling to do something no one else has ever done before.”

Like earn one of USF’s first Goldwater awards.

Mary Beth Erskine can be reached at 813-974-6993.