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Mary Fontana

Mary Fontana
Class of 2006
Immunology and Pathogenesis

I spend a lot of time in lab—it’s what I came here to do, after all. But no Berkeley grad student can resist the allure of the wider Bay Area.

When I applied to graduate school, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to study.  Choosing UC Berkeley was a way to hedge my bets: I figured that with such a breadth of research interests among the MCB faculty, I was sure to find something that fascinated me.  Sure enough, in my first year at Cal I found a home in the lab of Russell Vance, a junior professor in the small, close-knit division of Immunology and Pathogenesis.  I became interested in the ways that our immune systems distinguish pathogens from the many harmless, even beneficial, microbes that we encounter on a daily basis—in our guts, on our skin, in the air we breathe. 

I spend a lot of time in lab—it’s what I came here to do, after all.  But no Berkeley grad student can resist the allure of the wider Bay Area, and after five years here, I feel as connected to the eucalyptus-covered hills of Tilden Park and the cheap’n’tasty takeout places around campus as I do to my bench in the Vance lab.  Every morning I ride my bike to campus from my apartment in North Oakland, enjoying the time outside and dodging other commuters in the bike lane.  On weekends I may head out of town for a coastal hike in Point Reyes or a long bike ride across the Golden Gate Bridge to Tiburón.  Even during working hours, a Western blot transfer is an opportunity to meet a friend for coffee or run up to Gregoire’s for unbelievably good potato puffs (don’t ask, just try them). 

There are lots of good graduate schools out there.  But for me, Berkeley has been the best.  In the Vance lab, I’ve had the freedom to steer my project toward what interests me most.  I’ve received support (intellectual and emotional) from my advisor, my labmates, and the other members of the Immunology division, with whom I share workspace on the 4th floor of LSA.  I’ve published my discovery of a novel kind of innate immune recognition by which our bodies distinguish pathogens from non-pathogens.  And after years of working towards another important goal, I’ve finally taken home the trophy (with my baymate, Kate) in the annual Vance Lab/Barton Lab Bocce Ball tournament.  After that triumph, the Ph.D. will just be icing on the cake.

Undergraduate Degree: Gonzaga University