A cancer diagnosis helped this Mason grad find her career path


Dulcce Valenzuela wasn’t going to say she would want to go through it again. But of her diagnosis, fight, and success beating back cancer as a teenager, she said, “I wouldn’t change it for the world.”

That’s because the George Mason University senior, who will graduate this month with a bioengineering degree, used the episode as a foundation for her life’s purpose.

“How can I help other people?” she said. “How can I leverage my skills to help somebody else?”

For Valenzuela, 30, from Stafford, Virginia, and a transfer student from Germanna Community College, that means medical school, a career in aerospace medicine, perhaps in the Air Force, and building off her research in Mason’s Applied Biosensing Laboratory.

There, under the mentorship of associate professor Parag Chitnis, Valenzuela is part of an effort to develop wearable ultrasound technology for the quantitative assessment of musculoskeletal injuries in military service members.

At the same time, Valenzuela is working part-time for Inova Health System as a rehabilitation technician. She previously worked part-time for Mary Washington Healthcare as a patient safety attendant.

"Dulcce is an exemplar student who not only achieved high academic standing in our classes but also made the most of the diverse research opportunities Mason Bioengineering has to offer for our undergrads," Chitnis said. "In my lab, she independently developed a method for characterizing the performance of novel, wearable ultrasound sensors, which has now become part of our standard protocol. This was an impressive accomplishment considering that she had no prior experience in this area."

“Once you’re out of the waters with something like cancer, your body is very much in fight or flight mode, and you’re just kind of surviving for a little bit,” said Valenzuela, who underwent two years of treatment to overcome Ewing sarcoma, which began in the soft tissue and bones of her shoulder and spread to her lungs. “Now I’m doing things with intention.”

It is that grit—including coming to the United States at 13 with her mother and sister from their native Honduras for her cancer treatments—that defines Valenzuela as a Mason student, said Shani Ross, associate chair of undergraduate programs in the Bioengineering Department.

“She is a good citizen of Mason,” Ross said. “From a diverse background, a transfer student, a good human being. And through her own struggles, really wants to help people.”

Added Claudia Borke, an academic advisor in the Bioengineering Department: “She exemplifies the best in a Mason student.”

Valenzuela said Mason helped pull the best out of her.

She said she immediately felt at home at the university during a field trip to the Fairfax Campus with other Germanna students. She appreciates the university’s diversity and the “tons of opportunities” for research with faculty who are “very open to having students in their labs so we can get some experience.”

“I feel I’m coming out with good relationships, good connections,” Valenzuela said. “I feel pretty ready to take my next steps.”

That includes beginning an accelerated master’s program at Mason in Spring 2024, continuing her research in the Applied Biosensing Lab, studying for the MCAT, and eventually applying to medical schools.

“I’m so excited,” Valenzuela said about graduating. “It is such an accomplishment to do that and give that to my mom and let her enjoy that, too.”