Alumni Spotlight: Diego Cortes, Student-Athlete and Biochemistry Major

Diego_Cortes_SM2Diego Cortes is a graduate of YES Prep Southeast and a current junior at Oberlin College, majoring in biochemistry. He also runs cross-country and track for Oberlin. We asked Diego about his experiences as a student-athlete, his plans for the future, and his YES Prep career.

Why did you decide to attend Oberlin?

I wanted to go far away from home to a place that wouldn’t be very hot. I wanted to see all four seasons. I was also hoping to continue running track and cross country. Additionally, I wanted to go to a small school where I could interact with the professors one-on-one and follow the chemistry path. At Oberlin, I could run and it was also one of the only liberal arts schools that offered me funding.

What’s it like to be a student-athlete?

Oberlin is pretty rigorous. On top of that, I usually have about two to three hours a day for running and whatever supplemental exercises we have such as stretching, visiting the trainers, etc. Because I have this commitment aside from school, I have to really prioritize working on homework and studying over the weekends. One thing that our coach always reminds us is that we are student-athletes. Student comes first. Athlete comes second. If we have an important test, we can miss practice or a meet if we really need to. School is always a priority.

Sometimes when we’re running early in the morning and it’s cold and the pace feels fast, I have my doubts about being a runner. But running keeps me healthy and feeling good. I enjoy breaking my personal bests in whatever races we have. And being part of a team helps me too. The first week here, the other runners were the first people I met. Having teammates helped me transition from high school to college.

What work have you been doing with chemistry?

Since last year, I have been working with a professor on environmental atmospheric chemistry research. The overall goal of the project is to understand how biogenic volatile organic compounds (BVOCs), in combination with human-introduced pollutants, contribute to air pollution and climate change. I have looked at compounds that are derived from pine trees, and currently am looking at two compounds that derive from lemon trees. I study how fast the oxidized versions of the compounds react with water and acidic aerosols as well as what they produce.

My biggest moment was attending a biomedical conference in Florida. I presented my research and attended professional development sessions. Sadly, I presented poorly, but I learned a lot from that.

What did you learn from that experience?

I practiced a lot, including in front of my professor, and public speaking isn’t usually a problem for me, but presenting science was something new. Three of the presenters went in front of me, and I was impressed. I wasn’t sure I could do something at their level. When I went, I started shaking and didn’t stop shaking until I was about a minute in. I missed a few of my points. And when I was asked questions, I realized I wasn’t as prepared as I should have been. I wasn’t sure how to explain and defend why I did what I did in the research. I wished I’d asked my professor and advisor for more advice. But I hope to apply again next year since I now know to prepare. It was a great first experience presenting to a professional audience.

What are your other academic interests?

I study Russian. In high school, I did an intensive language program in Russia for about two months. Each day, we did two hours of grammar and two hours of conversation practice. There was a group of Russian students about our age that we had to work to communicate with. We went to stay with a host family for about two weeks. Our host father took us bowling, camping, and fishing. It was the first time I went fishing. I continued studying Russian in college– that was actually another reason I chose Oberlin. They offered Russian as a language. I’m not fluent yet, but I have been studying it for three years now.

What do you hope to do after you graduate?

I’d like to do my PhD in pharmacology at U of H. I’m also interested in programs in toxicology or possibly environmental chemistry. I really want to have a research-related career.

What do you carry with you from your experiences at YES Prep?

YES opened my eyes to opportunities like that Russia trip. I also attended SEGL. Having those opportunities to be away from home for so long prepared me for going to college somewhere far away.

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