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After Devastating Loss, Student Inspired To Help Others Facing Huge Hurdles

by Christin Ayers and Jennifer Mistrot

SOUTH SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) -- Deep inside a lab at Genentech in South San Francisco, Olivia Di Santo conducts a top secret study on how the body reacts to medicine.

"I'm looking at how to optimize dosing of a medicine," explained Di Santo. "To maximize the effect of it in terms of how often to take it and how much to take of it."

Di Santo's work at the lab is a far cry from what she dreamed of doing as a child.

"I wanted to be a chef," said Di Santo. "And I wanted to go into the WNBA."

LEARN MORE: Students Rising Above

Those childhood dreams were inspired by her father. Di Santo recalled how her dad taught her how to play "every sport that I've ever played." The pair were close but Di Santo's dad struggled with addiction. They lost touch her freshman year of High School. Then came some devastating news. Di Santo's father had passed away.

A trusted teacher encouraged her to join Students Rising Above. It was a turning point.

"I don't think I would be here if it wasn't for SRA," said Di Santo. "Time and time again they reassured me that I am enough."

Then one day, Di Santo stumbled across a TED Talk online about a man who built his own bionic legs. She was inspired.

"I want to go into prosthetics and orthotics," said Di Santo. "I want to do that because I feel like those people have had obstacles placed in their lives and I want to help them live their lives to the fullest by enabling them to be mobile and do things they never imagined possible."

Now Di Santo's a double major at San Diego State; mechanical and bio-engineering. With SRA's help, she landed a highly-competitive summer internship at Genentech.

Genentech scientist Paul Fielder has been impressed by Di Santo's work ethic and passion for science.

"You just meet her and that enthusiasm," recalled Fielder. "She tells you the story about wanting to make these 3D printing of prosthetic limbs you just say, 'Oh God, we've got to help that person accomplish that dream.'"

Di Santo says she is grateful for the support, and the opportunity.

"It's been unbelievable," said Di Santo. "I look forward to coming to work every single day."

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