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Left to right are Jude Gonsalves, Katelyn Denegre and Ceslee Montgomery. They are awaiting the start of the Bar Harbor July 4th parade.

Leap of faith

by Mark Wanner / Photography by Tiffany Hammond

Major corporate CEO or cardiothoracic surgeon?

For most ninth graders, musing about the future involves less concrete ambitions. But for Ceslee Montgomery, working as a hospital intern raised that serious question.

"Until that summer I was positive I was going to be a CEO of some major corporation," says Ceslee. "But on my last day at the hospital I shadowed a surgical oncologist performing a bilateral mastectomy. That day I decided surgery was what I wanted to do. Surgery is challenging, it requires active engagement, and most importantly, unlike working to improve profit margins, my career goal would be to improve and save lives."

Now a high school senior bound for Stanford University, Ceslee remains steadfast in her career ambitions. Well, almost. Her experience at The Jackson Laboratory's 2009 Summer Student Program didn't exactly change her mind, but her work at the laboratory bench did provide insight into expanded opportunities. As a result, the would-be CEO is now setting her sights on pursuing an M.D./Ph.D. Yet, while Ceslee's journey from Little Rock, Ark., to Bar Harbor, Maine, may have had only a subtle effect on her specific career goals, its overall impact was profound.

"I had no serious laboratory or science writing experience, and I was interested in having an experience that was different from what I had done so far. Plus I could see a different aspect of medicine."

Maine also involved a significant change in latitude. Ceslee describes her high school [North Little Rock High School, West Campus) as "the quintessential Southern school," and her native Arkansas accent stood out among her 30-plus fellow summer students as well as in the Bar Harbor community. But Ceslee thought of her sudden "uniqueness" as an opportunity, to instill a different perception of her home state in her peers.

Surgery is challenging, it requires active engagement, and most importantly, unlike working to improve profit margins, my career goal would be to improve and save lives.

Accents are irrelevant in the laboratory, and Ceslee soon immersed herself in her work with Rick Maser, Ph.D., on a suspected cancer-suppressing gene in leukemia. Given her lack of research experience, she faced a huge learning curve. Her ability to meet the challenge provided a boost that will serve her well in her chosen profession.

"Within six weeks I learned a lot about cancer genetics, conducting and publishing research, and was able to give a 12-minute presentation on my work," says Ceslee. "It gave me a huge degree of confidence in my ability to learn and succeed and will be a key ingredient in my future endeavors."

Those endeavors will begin in earnest next fall when she matriculates at Stanford. In a "some things are just meant to be" coincidence, Ceslee's summer in Bar Harbor was supported by a scholarship established by summer student alumna Stefanie Jeffrey, M.D., now chief of Surgical Oncology Research at the Stanford University School of Medicine (see page 8). It appears to be a meeting of kindred spirits, as Jeffrey's career includes significant accomplishments in both clinical and laboratory settings, exactly what her fellow alumna intends to achieve. Indeed, the two have already been in touch, and Jeffrey is providing guidance to help Ceslee hit the ground running when she arrives on the Stanford campus.

Of course, one of the key features of the Summer Student Program is that it stimulates and challenges students outside of the laboratory as well as insideā€”everything from hiking the harrowing Knife Edge trail on Mount Katahdin to discussing social welfare issues with friends from different backgrounds. For Ceslee, her intellectual growth was matched, if not exceeded, by her spiritual growth. In a new environment, challenged by new tasks and a wide array of opinions and perspectives, away from large churches and congregations, she found that her faith grew stronger.

After her return to Little Rock, Ceslee wrote about her experience and the impact it has had on her. One passage in particular captures its essence:

"My last weekend in Bar Harbor, on a beautiful summer afternoon, I jumped off a 30-foot cliff into Echo Lake after 30 minutes of hesitation. I was afraid of the unknown but I knew that I would only have one chance to experience the exhilaration or terror that resulted from taking that plunge. I closed my eyes and ran until my feet were gliding on air because I knew 'that by risking nothing you risk everything.' As I reflect on what my experience in Maine has meant in the greater scheme of the story of my life, I am reminded of the many things I have learned about others, about myself, and about my God-given and self-explored purpose."