A first-generation student’s path to an Ivy League Ph.D. program

A first-generation student’s path to an Ivy League Ph.D. program

A first-generation student’s path to an Ivy League Ph.D. program


Joseph Casila
Joseph Casila on the University of Pennsylvania campus, where he began a doctoral program in bioengineering in August 2021.

Two years after becoming the first in his family to graduate from a U.S.-accredited university, University of Guam alumnus Joseph Lance Casila is beginning a prestigious next chapter in his life. Starting this semester, he is working toward a doctorate in bioengineering at an Ivy League school — the University of Pennsylvania, where he was also offered a fellowship package that covers his full tuition and living expenses.

Casila will be spending the next four to six years at the university’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences studying tissue engineering and regenerative medicine.

Casila at the National Institutes of Health
Casila at the National Institutes of Health, where he researched the genetic associations of diabetic nephropathy between Guam and Native American populations during a summer research program in 2016.
“My research lab is located at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia,” he said, “where we leverage our platforms in tissue engineering and drug delivery for biomedical problems relating to knees, ears, nose, and throat but specifically to pediatric airway disorders.”

One of the lab’s goals, he said, is to engineer cartilage that can mitigate certain complications with laryngotracheal reconstruction for infants.

His strategy in getting to this point was threefold: Plan early, gain as much relevant experience as possible, and lean on friends, faculty, and faith for support. 

Casila at Bridge Design/Build Competition
Casila volunteers in testing bridges during the Harold Dean Gillham Bridge Design/Build Competition for Guam high schools in 2017.

A master plan for a major goal

Casila took education seriously early on, graduating as the valedictorian from George Washington High School, which earned him a full-ride scholarship to attend UOG and made his academic pursuits possible.

As a freshman, he was interested in bioengineering — a field that applies engineering principles and technologies to the fields of medicine and biology.

Today, UOG students interested in bioengineering can prepare for an advanced degree program through the Biology Program’s bio-medical track along with courses from the Civil Engineering Program at UOG. However, those programs, both launched in the past three years, had yet to be developed when Casila began at UOG.

So, true to his nature, he engineered a degree path that closely mirrored an undergraduate biomedical engineering degree. His master plan involved triple majoring in chemistry, mathematics, and biology under the College of Natural & Applied Sciences.

“I made full use of what was afforded to me, and it definitely paid off,” he said.

Casila’s application to the UPenn doctoral program not only satisfied the coursework requirements, but it was also strengthened by the breadth of hands-on experience he acquired at UOG.

Seizing opportunities

As an undergrad, Casila sought out new opportunities wherever possible.

“Because I was curious about what I really wanted to do, it led me to explore all these opportunities that were available at UOG,” he said.

Casila at ABRCMS
Casila celebrates his first win in a research presentation competition at the National Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students in 2016 in Tampa.
He worked as a teaching assistant in the mathematics and chemistry labs and as a research assistant with the university’s Water & Environmental Research Institute of the Western Pacific and Western Pacific Tropical Research Center.

He applied for and was accepted into competitive summer research programs for three summers in a row at the National Institutes of Health, the Broad Institute of MIT & Harvard, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He presented — and, not to mention, won awards — at four national research conferences.

He also completed an internship at the engineering firm Brown & Caldwell.

“My mentors, and especially my friends, helped me make the most of what UOG had to offer, and it paid off rewardingly,” he said. “You get what you put in.”

Casila was also passionate about creating opportunities for his fellow Tritons. After completing a summer research internship in 2016, he was inspired to start a student organization with his friends to share the resources he got from the internship.

“We started the UOG American Medical Student Association to give our peers the opportunity to formally connect with medical professionals and to serve as a support group for Tritons pursuing medical school,” he said.

Additionally, he helped form the UOG student chapters of the Society of American Military Engineers and, as he developed a stronger interest in research, the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics & Native Americans in Science (SACNAS), which exposes students to a variety of research opportunities.  

Joseph Casila in microbiology, 2018
Casila with his friends in microbiology during his junior year at the University of Guam in 2018. (From left) Roi Viray, Joseph Casila, Jerilyn Calaor, Seanne Clemente, and Maegan Delfin.

Triton support system

Like many college students, there were times when Casila felt drained — especially having to juggle coursework, extracurricular activities, work-study, and research.

“When that happened, it was nice to have my professors and especially my group of friends there for moral support,” he said. “They always encouraged me and reminded me that I was capable.”

Casila said his professors gave him advice and wrote him many letters of recommendation for scholarships and off-island internship opportunities. One resulted in him becoming the first student in UOG history to be named an American Chemical Society Scholar.

He also found encouragement through his faith and Proverbs 3 in the Bible, reminding him to let God lead his path.

"I definitely grew a lot in faith through it all and always remembered the verse to 'Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your paths.'”

Future aspirations

Following completion of the bioengineering program, Casila plans to return home to advance health knowledge of Guam’s population by starting a research lab.

“With a doctorate, I’m hoping to gain the credibility for grants and get the funding necessary for research,” he said.

He also aspires to give back to the community by teaching and mentoring students, who can ultimately help solve the critical bottleneck in health care in Guam.

“There are plenty of students in Guam who have great potential and just need the same encouragement that I received,” he said.

Joseph Casila is available to answer any questions UOG students may have. He may be contacted at  josephv.c@outlook.com