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Atlantic Cape leads grad to front lines in COVID-19 research

An Atlantic County man is now on the front lines working to identify effective COVID-19 treatments.
“I would have never thought I’d be here,” Felix Contreras-Castro said of his current position as a clinical research manager at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York.
When he started Atlantic Cape Community College in 2012, the Absegami High School graduate admits he didn’t know what he wanted to do.
“I’m the first in my family to go to college,” Contreras-Castro said. “I didn’t have too many aspirations or know what I wanted to do, but I always had the passion to learn and be open-minded, and that’s what led me to where I am today.”
His curiosity and drive landed him an internship at Yale School of Medicine, where he decided he wanted to pursue a career in the medical field.
He received a full ride to Amherst College after graduating from ACCC in 2014,
“I always say that Atlantic Cape was my foundation and Yale was my compass,” said the Distinguished Alumni Award winner said. “I want students to know that you are not defined by where you start, where you were born, how you look, your religion, or your sexuality. Those markers do not define your destiny. I didn’t let my identities define my future. I started as a cashier at CVS making minimum wage, and now my job is so rewarding.”
As a kid growing up in Galloway Township and Brigantine, he said he never imagined South Jersey.
Now, he’s at Mount Sinai spending his days compiling data: collecting blood serum samples, analyzing patients’ electronic medical records and meeting with the physician-scientists leading the studies to discuss the findings.
The hospital is currently testing medications to determine effectiveness on patients with COVID-19.
“We suspect the medication used to treat SARS can be effective,” he said. “We also have noticed that men are dying at a significantly higher rate than women, so we are testing the idea that estrogen might provide an extra layer of protection.”
It’s a job that Contreras-Castro describes as stressful but fulfilling, and he credits Atlantic Cape as creating the foundation that prepared him for this role.
“My route wasn’t the most efficient, since I had three majors (biology, sociology and human services),” he admits. “But, Atlantic Cape gave me the flexibility to be curious and take classes I was interested in, which helped me find my focus. So many students start with a clear plan of what they think they want to do, and that’s OK, but it’s also OK to figure it out along the way. Base it on what you like and what you are interested in; be curious.”
And he isn’t done learning yet.
Contreras-Castro plans to enroll in medical school in 2022.
He hopes that current and future Atlantic Cape students who hear his story will feel empowered and seize the opportunities open to them.
“Go in there with the mindset that you want to learn because it will lead you to the next steps in your life,” he said. “Don’t be afraid to go through doors that open for you. Create your own narrative. So many people inspired me; I want to return the favor.”

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