Best in Class: Grads Saving, Improving Lives
The UA's 2017 graduating class wants to help improve the human condition. The class includes a future dermatologist who made rescues during Hurricane Katrina, a researcher studying Tibetan monks, a Chinese-born mining engineer and a musician who has performed around the globe.

University Communications
May 10, 2017


The UA will celebrate the achievement of thousands of graduating students on Friday. If you can't attend the event, it will be streamed live by Arizona Public Media.
The UA will celebrate the achievement of thousands of graduating students on Friday. If you can't attend the event, it will be streamed live by Arizona Public Media. (Photo: John de Dios/UANews)

The University of Arizona's 2017 graduating class includes a U.S. Air Force veteran who saved lives in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and is working to become a dermatologist, and a mining engineer devoted to improving safety in her field.

The class also includes a researcher who has been studying how Buddhist monks connect traditional knowledge with Western scientific research to explain mental functions, and a highly accomplished percussionist who has performed nationally and internationally.

Here are some of the students who will receive their degrees on Friday: 

Jose "Anthony" Cervantes (graduating with a degree in medicine from the College of Medicine – Tucson) 

Jose "Anthony" Cervantes is a member of the 306th Rescue Squadron. In 2015, one of his medical rotations was interrupted by a call to rescue a man hiking in the Huachuca Mountains who had suffered a heart attack at 9,000 feet.

Cervantes recalled growing up in poverty living in Texas and, for a short while, in Mexico. Neither of his parents graduated from high school, and his father worked several jobs as a printer to provide for him and his younger sister.

Despite the economic struggles of his youth, Cervantes said he has had "enablers" throughout his life who helped him along and eventually encouraged him to work toward becoming a physician.

"I didn't have a perfect resumé for medical school," said Cervantes, a student veteran and a Pat Tillman Scholar who will graduate from the College of Medicine – Tucson.

In 2000, he graduated high school early to join the U.S. Air Force in hopes of becoming a Pararescue jumper. Pararescue jumpers train alongside Special Forces and Navy SEAL candidates and undergo training as medics. While deployed to Afghanistan, Iraq and Africa, Cervantes was called to rescue wounded service members multiple times.

Pararescue jumpers also are called to help rescue civilians. After Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, Cervantes helped rescue more than 200 people from rooftops, attics and upper floors of apartments in the week that followed that natural disaster. Today, he retains service with the 306th Rescue Squadron and can be called at any point to travel in the world to help rescue a service member.

"We treated a lot of people who were dehydrated and folks who were very sick — diabetics, things like that," Cervantes said of the hurricane experience. "We just pulled folks out and took them to different places — the airport, hospitals, the Superdome and a 'cloverleaf,' where the highways converged and Greyhound buses would take them away to Houston or Dallas."

While serving as a Pararescue jump instructor at Lackland Air Force Base, Cervantes earned his undergraduate degree in pre-biology, taking night classes at the University of Texas, San Antonio. He applied to medical school at the UA, in part because his family had lived in Tucson when he was stationed at Davis–Monthan Air Force Base and because of the 306th Rescue Squadron, one of only a few Reserve Pararescue units in the country. The timing was right, too, because he had just been named a 2013 Tillman Scholar by the Pat Tillman Foundation.

In addition to his family, Cervantes gives thanks to several College of Medicine – Tucson mentors: UA surgery professor Dr. Bill Rappaport; Dr. Vivian Shi, an assistant professor of medicine; Dr. Nathalie Zeitouni, a former UA faculty member; Dr. Violet Siwik, senior assistant dean of Student Affairs in the college; and Lucy Contreras, UA Department of Medicine clerkship coordinator.

After graduating, Cervantes will complete an internship in internal medicine at Tucson Medical Center. He then will leave for the University of Texas, Austin, and the Dell Medical School and its LIVESTRONG Cancer Institutes for his residency training in dermatology. His goal is to be a Mohs surgeon, specializing in removal of melanomas and other complex skin cancers.

Watch a video of Cervantes below:

Jing Liu (graduating with a bachelor's degree in mining engineering)

"In mining engineering, I have found my ideal career," said Jing Liu, who has been named the Department of Mining and Geological Engineering's Outstanding Senior. (Photo: Pete Brown/UA College of Engineering)

Liu, who grew up in Nanjing, a rural area of China, says she had humble and poor beginnings. Her family grew vegetables and farmed animals to eat and sell. Although her family struggled financially, one of her fondest memories is of her father gifting her a bicycle for her fifth birthday, which would reveal her interest in tinkering.

"He would grab on my seat to hold me steady while I clumsily pedaled down a dirt road," Liu recalled. " I remember how much I loved that bicycle and how much I wanted to learn everything about it from riding it to mechanically fixing it."

Liu's family immigrated to the U.S. to live in Fremont, located in northern California, when she was about 8. There, her father worked as a fry cook at a Chinese restaurant while her mother took various jobs.

"In just three years, my parents were able to provide a warm and loving home to call our own. They bought a house and used all the money they saved up to pay the down payment," Liu said.

Her parents also emphasized education, encouraging her and her younger brother to be academically competitive. Ultimately, Liu would graduate in the top 10 percent of her class, then moved to Tucson to study nutritional sciences. Her brother, Jun Liu, earned a civil engineering degree from the University of California, Berkeley.

After earning her Bachelor of Science at the UA, graduating with honors, Liu decided she was bound for another path. With encouragement from a friend, she decided to pursue mining engineering and was the first student to begin the accelerated master's program this year, all while finishing her undergraduate degree.

"At first I was hesitant to the idea. My mind was quickly changed, however, as my friends told me about their firsthand experiences and the reality of actually working in the mining industry," Liu said.

As a research assistant, Liu investigated mine tailings waste and how such waste could be used to make construction materials.

"The work seemed very interesting and the scale at which operations are conducted has to this day not ceased to amaze me," she said. "The impact that a well-thought-out engineering study has on any given operation in a mine can have a colossal effect on cost as well as safety. This sense of empowerment is incredible. I enjoy very much the fact that I can help to improve processes on a very large scale and actually see the effects take place. In mining engineering, I have found my ideal career."

Tenzin Sonam (graduating with a doctorate in science education from the College of Education)

"The introduction of science education in the monastery was a historic move for the Tibetan monasteries since they are historically the epicenter Tibetan culture and knowledge," said Tenzin Sonam (center), who speaks English, Hindi and Tibetan.

Sonam explained that, in 1959, his family fled to India from China's occupation of Tibet. He was born in Dharamsala — home to the Dalai Lama — grew up in a Tibetan refugee community in India and attended a Tibetan school there. He went on to earn a degree in mechanical engineering from Delhi University in 2000. The Tibetan doctoral student is now receiving his doctorate in science education from the UA College of Education.

For years, Sonam has worked for several science programs involved in bringing Western science into the Tibetan Buddhist monasteries of India. It was during that time that he began to meet a number of science educators and scientists who were adopting new methodologies and teaching practices to train monastics students in Western science.

One of them was University Distinguished Professor Chris Impey, associate dean of the UA College of Science. Impey first traveled to India as part of the Science for Monks program, initiated at the Dalai Lama's request. It was during one of those trips that Sonam, who served as a Science for Monks project coordinator from 2006 to 2011, begin serving as a translator and interpreter in Impey's astronomy classes for the monastics.

"I was amazed not only by his content knowledge but his pedagogical skills that allow monastics to conceptualize complex theories and large numbers in astronomy," Sonam said. "More than our personal interaction, his interactive teaching methods left me deeply impressed that I want to learn more about science teaching and learning. So he is one of the individuals to get me hooked to explore a graduate program in science education."

Motivated by the work of Impey and others at the University who were devoted to the study of Buddhism and the teaching of monastics, Sonam applied for graduate studies at several institutions but ultimately chose the UA.

For his dissertation, Sonam researched Tibetan monastics who were learning science, studying how they incorporate scientific knowledge into their traditionally Buddhist worldview.

Reflecting on his life history and his research experience with the monastics, Sonam said: "The dilemma of being a refugee is somewhat similar to many immigrants in this country who are constantly negotiating between full assimilation and maintaining some degree of their cultural heritage. Similarly, the monks in this study were repeatedly challenged by conflicts arising between Western science and their Buddhist understanding of the world. For example, science challenges their traditional concept of sentient being but at the same time they are not willing to accept the materialistic reductionist approach to life in science. So maybe it is in this contested spaces (that) new knowledge, new meaning, new consciousness and new identities could be evolved. This is what I am interested in as a researcher."

Sonam found that the Tibetan monks in his study experienced multiple "cognitive conflicts" in reconciling the biological theory of evolution into their Buddhist worldview.

"Thus, in the process of reconciling these cognitive conflicts, monks engage in construal of both scientific and Buddhist concepts," he said. "As an education researcher, this has consequence for both the science instruction and science learning of the monastics."

He plans to extend this research into other areas of science, such as neuroscience and cognitive science. He also intends to develop a culturally responsive science curriculum that could be implemented in Tibetan Buddhist monasteries in India.

"Buddhists have collected tremendous literature on function and training of our minds historically. The scientific community had started paying attention only recently," said Sonam, who is currently seeking a postdoctoral position. "So, how the Buddhist monastics' traditional knowledge of our mind would be leveraged in learning of Western scientific explanation of our mind and mental functions would be an interesting research area."

Trevor Cameron Barroero (graduating from the Fred Fox School of Music with a bachelor's degree in percussion performance)

For a second consecutive year, Trevor Cameron Barroero will appear as a featured soloist with the Pacific Region International Summer Music Academy Orchestra in Powell River, British Columbia in June. (Photo: Mindi Acosta/UA Fred Fox School of Music)

A native of Tucson, Barroero has been the gold medalist of several concerto competitions and won the Pacific Region International Summer Music Academy's concerto competition.

While in high school, he participated in the Santa Fe Marimba Festival and the Northwestern University Percussion Symposium. He also was chosen to attend the Juilliard Summer Percussion Seminar in New York City in 2011.

More recently, Barroero has performed as a featured soloist in Canada and with nearly every major orchestra in southern Arizona, including the Tucson Symphony Orchestra, the Tucson Pops, the Civic Orchestra of Tucson, the Arizona Symphony Orchestra and the Tucson Philharmonia Youth Orchestra.

Also, he has traveled to British Columbia to perform as a marimba soloist, visited China to complete a visual anthropology project on sustainability and the evolution of music culture in the rural Guizhou Province, and performed in Russia as guest timpanist of the Moscow Symphony Orchestra.

"My performance with the Moscow Symphony exceeded every one of my expectations and I cannot wait to return to Russia someday soon to perform with the group again," said Barroero, a Flinn Scholar, who was a guest percussionist and timpanist in an all-Tchaikovsky performance under the baton of maestro Arthur Arnold at the Grand Hall Moscow Conservatory.

A student of Fred Fox School of Music faculty members Norman Weinberg and Morris Palter, Barroero also studied at the Aspen Music Festival in 2016 as recipient of a UA Medici Scholarship and Research Grant from the UA Honors College. There, he studied privately with Mark Yancich, principal timpanist of the Atlanta Symphony, and Paul Yancich, principal timpanist of the Cleveland Orchestra.

A founding member of the percussion trio Lineage Percussion, Barroero made history in May 2016. His ensemble won the bronze medal at the Fischoff National Chamber Music Competition, and he became the first percussionist in the 43-year history of the competition to be selected as a senior-division finalist.

Barroero also is serving his third year as principal percussionist of the Arizona Symphony Orchestra, and he is a member of the Rosewood Marimba Band and Crosstalk electronic percussion ensemble.

And for his thesis, Barroero presented his recital as a benefit to raise funds for the Alzheimer's Association in honor of his late father and grandmother. The event, "…in loving memory," raised $5,000.

For his achievements, Barroero was named the Outstanding Senior for both the Fred Fox School of Music and the College of Fine Arts.

"Music was, and always will be, a source of healing for me," Barroero said. "As a passionate and collaborative art form, music can thrive when words fail. It is the tool with which musicians can heal, empower and communicate with others." 

La Monica Everett-Haynes, Pete Brown, Sherri Raskin, David Mogollón, Ana Terrazas and Invgi Kallen contributed to this article.

Extra info

The UA's 153rd Commencement ceremony will be held Friday at 7:30 p.m. in Arizona Stadium. Arizona Public Media will stream the ceremony online:

Event details are available online for:

Also: Follow Commencement coverage on Twitter and share using #Beardownlife

Read the first part of the UANews series on the Class of 2017 here.


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La Monica Everett-Haynes

University Communications