Gonzaga University Professor of Biology, Mia Bertagnolli ‘84, came and spoke with students about her time at Prep and her career in the sciences. After graduating from Prep in 1984, Bertagnolli went to Gonzaga University where she graduated summa cum laude with her B.S. in Biology and a minor in Chemistry. In 1993 she earned her Ph.D. in Biology from the University of Utah. She began working at Gonzaga University following her graduation in 1993 and has been there since. She is currently on a sabbatical leave working on special projects focused on mentoring undergraduate students and faculty in STEM fields. Bertagnolli is as Professor of Biology, Interim Associate Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, and Chair of the Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry at Gonzaga University.
When Bertagnolli was a young student at Trinity Grade School she developed a love for math and solving puzzles. As one of nine in her eighth grade class, Bertagnolli was allowed the time to learn at her own pace, something that she said was instrumental to her education and the development of her passion for math and science. The principal of the school recognized Bertagnolli’s love for math and her natural talents with numbers. She encouraged Bertagnolli to pursue math and challenged her with work that suited Bertagnolli’s talent. The individualized attention to Bertagnolli’s learning style really helped her she said.
At Gonzaga Prep Bertagnolli said she was exposed to science in new and different ways than she had thought about it before. In Mr. Kuder’s chemistry class she saw how math and science came together. Bertagnolli said her love of math and solving equations combined with the teachers at Prep showed her so much more about the STEM field than what she already knew.
“I can’t begin to name all of the people at Gonzaga Prep who influenced me. In one way or another, all of the teachers and coaches and staff with whom I interacted at Gonzaga Prep had an impact on me. They helped me develop a love for math and science, be a good writer, and appreciate literature and history; they allowed me to pursue my passion for singing and encouraged my life-long obsession with sports and staying fit and healthy; and through conversations both in and out of the classroom, they helped me develop my own opinions and perspectives,” said Bertagnolli.
Upon entering college, Bertagnolli believed she would be a doctor. She said that is the path she thought all science majors were on. But when she was doing mock interviews for premed students during her senior year of college she was asked why she wanted to be a doctor. She said, “because I want to help people and I love Biology.” The interviewer didn’t think that answer would suffice and Bertagnolli said that her world was unravelled in a 30 minute mock interview. She went back to the question of “what do I love?” and the answer was problem solving and math. This changed Bertagnolli’s trajectory toward getting her PhD in Biology.
During her PhD program at the University of Utah she worked as a teacher’s assistant and learned that she liked teaching science and helping others understand science. From there she decided to become a professor and has been teaching at Gonzaga University for the last 26 years. She said her career has grown and developed as the years have gone on.
She said the reason she has been successful in school and her career is because of the study skills and discipline she learned while at Gonzaga Prep. Learning how to prioritize her time was essential to her success in college. “At Gonzaga Prep I was challenged to work hard and prioritize multiple commitments in a supportive community with shared values. Academic preparation is important, but so too is having the confidence to accept new challenges, step outside of your comfort zone, and strive to be the best person you can be. The community at Gonzaga Prep, its focus on Ignatian education, and the expectation that we use our talents in the service of others are key to the education of the whole person that happens at Gonzaga Prep,” said Bertagnolli.
Bertagnolli’s favorite part of her job is getting to use the skills she has learned and her own experiences to be a mentor for others who are in similar positions. “I get to help people who walk into my office who don’t know what direction to go in terms of their career. It is a rewarding thing to see others’ demeanor change from concerned and unsure to light and hopeful. I get to do that for faculty members, colleagues, as well,” Said Bertagnolli.
When asked what her advice is to students planning on going to college she said it is important for students to form connections with their college professors. Professors are professionals that can help students discern their career paths and they types of opportunities that can help students get there. “In college it’s on you to build the relationship with your teacher,” said Bertagnolli.
She also encouraged students to develop strong study habits to understand content, to actively explore interests, even those outside of one’s original major or career path, and said to not be too hard on yourself. “Give yourself the time, the space and the opportunity to discern the best path for you,” said Bertagnolli, “You are going to encounter very challenging coursework, even in your first semester of college. If your grades are not what you want them to be, don’t get too upset and don’t give up! Identify the resources available at your college that are designed to support you. Ask for help, take care of yourself both physically and emotionally, and find advisors who can help you think through decisions about whether or not to drop a certain class, or change majors, or change your career focus altogether.”
In addition to mentoring students and colleagues, Bertagnolli is a proud mother of two daughters, Jackie ‘14 and Sammie ‘18. “[They] are fun, talented, and wonderful people who bring [my husband and I] great joy and of whom we are extremely proud. It is such a gift to be able to be part of their journey and watch as they choose their own paths in life,” Said Bertagnolli.
She concluded by reminding us that we live in a time when it is essential to have a well-rounded education where critical thinking and care for others is of utmost importance. “I know from my own experience that Gonzaga Prep develops these skills and characteristics in its students and challenges them to use their talents and skills to make the world a better place,” said Bertagnolli. Se believes that the students at Prep will develop into future leaders who can make a positive difference in the world.