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Paloma Marin-Nevarez practices sutures

Remembering her obstacles, Stanford med student aspires to give back

Paloma Marin-Nevarez once thought becoming a doctor was an unattainable goal. Now a Stanford medical student, she'll soon be an emergency medicine resident.

As a young girl, Paloma Marin-Nevarez loved science. She loved the idea of measuring what she could not see, and of understanding the biology behind life in the human body. She read incessantly about science in a dog-eared set of Snoopy encyclopedias.

But the idea of becoming a doctor always seemed out of reach.

"I just thought of it as this unattainable goal," she said.

She and her mother had moved to the United States from Mexico when Marin-Nevarez was 9, after her father died. Their life in South Gate, California, 20 minutes from downtown Los Angeles, was modest. They lived in a tiny apartment. Her mother worked long hours at two jobs, as a produce clerk in a grocery store and at a 99-cent store.

Marin-Nevarez's job was to do well in school, and she did, learning English quickly in middle school, leading her class in high school, graduating from Williams College in Massachusetts, and eventually becoming a student at the Stanford University School of Medicine. But, she said, it was not always easy.

Passionate about science and helping others in similar circumstances, Stanford medical student Paloma Marin-Nevarez is pursuing a career as an emergency medicine physician.

We spoke for the #WeAreStanfordMed video series, which spotlights Stanford medical students and the impact of being able to get financial assistance. Marin-Nevarez, now just months away from graduating medical school, opened up about her struggles, her inspiration and why it's so important to her to give back.

"There were definite, undeniable inequalities in the education that I received, coming from a low-income household, going to a school that did not have as many resources as the private schools," she told us. "I knew that my profession was going to be one that served other people, that helped to uplift others, that helped provide a service, because that just aligns with the way that I was raised and my family values."

Education was important to Marin-Nevarez's mother; but because she knew limited English and her schooling stopped after the 12th grade in Mexico, she couldn't help her daughter navigate the complex process for preparing and applying for college in the United States.

Marin-Nevarez's AP chemistry teacher, Geri Ottaviano, stepped in. She not only provided guidance and encouragement but even took her student on a college campus visit and coached her in writing her personal statement.

Medical student Paloma Marin-Nevarez studying
Teaching eighth-grade science prepared Paloma Marin-Nevarez for some of medical school's challenges.

College was still a big challenge, however. Marin-Nevarez told us that she felt unprepared. "Physics wasn't available in my high school because there's a huge science teacher shortage," she said. "So, while my classmates were like, 'This is exactly what I did in high school,' I was like, 'I don't know how to do this.' "

She prevailed, thanks to her determination and to help from deans, professors and other students. The experience convinced her to become a science teacher, at least for a while: "I didn't want what happened to me to happen to other students."

Marin-Nevarez signed up to teach eighth-grade science at a charter school in San Fernando, California. She found it humbling, challenging, rewarding and life-changing. "I was so inspired by my students," she told us. "I saw so much growth, so much resilience."

But after three years, Marin-Nevarez wanted to shift her focus to human health. As a doctor, she could pursue her passion for science, continue teaching and fulfill her desire to provide a service for the community.

She liked Stanford's flexible curriculum, reputation for research and welcoming vibe; but she wasn't sure she'd fit in. A friend offered her words of encouragement that Marin-Nevarez took to heart: "You are a leader, and Stanford is a place that breeds leaders."

Stanford medical student Paloma Marin-Nevarez finds out where she matched for her residency
Stanford medical student Paloma Marin-Nevarez finds out where she matched for her residency.

During her time at Stanford, Marin-Nevarez volunteered and became vaccines coordinator at the Pacific Free Clinic in San Jose, which serves people who are uninsured or have other obstacles to obtaining medical care. She also co-created a seminar called Service through Surgery, in which surgeons discuss how they care for underserved populations.

As she progressed through medical school, she became convinced that her future is in emergency medicine. Inspired by what she learned as a teacher, she also plans to have a career in medical education, to help aspiring doctors achieve their own goals in medicine.

Last week, Marin-Nevarez learned where she will take her next step: she matched for emergency medicine residency at the Fresno location of the University of California San Francisco.

"I will be taking care of patients who have nowhere else to turn -- and that's a passion of mine," she said. "I want to be there, to be that safety net."

#WeAreStanfordMed is a video series spotlighting Stanford medical students and the impact of financial assistance on their education and aspirations.

Top photos and video by Luceo. Bottom photo courtesy of Paloma Marin-Nevarez

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