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Former drop-out solving life’s puzzles at Whatcom Community College

Whatcom Community College student Sharalyn Sentinella in a lab at the Bellingham school on Tuesday, June 16, 2015. Sentinella, who will be the student speaker at graduation Saturday, June 20, plans to attend the University of Portland next year and wants to research cancer treatments.
Whatcom Community College student Sharalyn Sentinella in a lab at the Bellingham school on Tuesday, June 16, 2015. Sentinella, who will be the student speaker at graduation Saturday, June 20, plans to attend the University of Portland next year and wants to research cancer treatments. The Bellingham Herald

Sharalyn Sentinella likes solving puzzles.

In some ways, her own life has been a puzzle. From growing up training horses in Montana, to dropping out of school to build websites, and now graduating from Whatcom Community College, the stages of her life never seemed to fit together.

But Sentinella, 30, finally has a goal that may fit her: working as a cancer researcher.

Sentinella grew up without electricity or Internet for most of her youth in the Cabinet Mountains of Montana, where she wasn’t too worried about getting a good education. College was seen as some “crazy thing,” she said, so she dropped out of school at age 16.

Fourteen years later, she finds herself blossoming at Whatcom Community College.

“I see the world sort of like a puzzle, I guess,” Sentinella said. “I like to put chaotic puzzles together, and I didn’t really realize that correlated with math and science until I got into school.”

Sentinella is graduating with an associate’s degree and is one of two people in Washington state to earn an up-to-$40,000 scholarship per year for three years from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation. She was selected for the scholarship out of 2,061 applicants in the nation. She’ll use it as she furthers her education at the University of Portland next year.

On Saturday, June 20, she will be the student speaker at Whatcom Community College’s commencement ceremony.

Sentinella didn’t have the Internet until she was 14. She learned HTML coding within two years and dropped out of school to build websites in Colorado. She then moved to Oregon, where she said she “basically painted for the next 10 years.” Earning money as a contract worker, she decided she wasn’t satisfied intellectually, so she enrolled at Whatcom Community College more than two years ago.

She still wasn’t sure what she wanted to study, because everything she did growing up — riding horses, building fences, planting trees — was a hands-on activity. She wanted to find a subject that supported her learning style and, eventually, that led her to science.

She did undergraduate research studying common molecules in different plants and comparing her data with data of evolutionary theories. It wasn’t cancer research, but she said it helped her learn how to write a good scientific paper and present her findings. The research also helped her understand what she was learning during class.

“I have to see how things connect, how they’re tangible. And doing research at the same time as learning these subjects helps me a lot,” Sentinella said.

One of her biology instructors, John Rousseau, said Sentinella’s greatest strength is problem solving.

“I needed to help her very little, and she had the independence and energy and skill to work on this project pretty much by herself,” Rousseau said. “She ran into the typical problems that would just stop most students ... and she figured out ways around them.”

Sentinella is choosing the University of Portland for its small class sizes and emphasis on undergraduate research. She plans on majoring in biochemistry before working as a researcher in cancer treatment development.

Though she said her family has a history of cancer, she is not choosing that path for personal reasons. She is inspired by the mechanics of cancer biology, she said.

Because she sees everything as a puzzle, a cure for cancer simply is a problem waiting to be solved — something she seems pretty good at so far.

“If everything is basically mathematically tangible, then things that seem intangible or have not yet been discovered are just waiting to be discovered,” Sentinella said. “If we don’t yet have a cure for cancer, it’s there. It’s just a puzzle that needs to be put together.”

Reach Wilson Criscione at 360-756-2803 or wilson.criscione@bellinghamherald.com.

WCC graduation

Whatcom Community College’s graduation ceremony will be at 2 p.m. Saturday, June 20, at Civic Field, 1355 Civic Field Way, Bellingham.

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