Bridging the Gap

University of San Diego alumna Hannah Otte ’19 (BA)


In 2010, as a senior at Mater Dei Catholic High School in Chula Vista, Nick Day ’15 (BA) was interested in biology and participated in what was then a new program, known as Bridging the Gap. In it, he learned how cells work in greater detail and realized he enjoyed the field.

So much so that Day went on to earn his bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of San Diego. In 2020, he received his PhD in cellular biology from the University of Montana. Today, he’s a postdoctoral research associate at Pacific Northwestern National Laboratory where he works on biomedical research projects.

Bridging the Gap is still going strong and, recently, USD was awarded a $4 million grant from The ALSAM Foundation to endow the program, which aims to inspire students to major in science, technology, engineering and mathematics and help them gain the academic and research fundamentals they need to succeed in college and pursue careers in those fields.

In addition to endowing Bridging the Gap in perpetuity, the funding also provides scholarships for Mater Dei students who plan to major in STEM disciplines at USD. To date, a large majority of the 174 students who have participated in the program have declared majors or earned degrees in STEM fields at universities nationwide.

The ALSAM Foundation, based in Salt Lake City, Utah, was established in 1984 by Aline and L.S. “Sam” Skaggs, who turned a chain of 11 family-owned drug stores into more than 200 retail outlets in 21 states and later acquired the American Stores Company, which included Sav-On Drugs and many more.

The partnership that launched Bridging the Gap began in 2009, when the science departments at USD responded to The ALSAM Foundation’s request to design a science enrichment program that served Mater Dei’s Science Academy. The partnership recently was expanded to include students from Juan Diego Catholic High School in Salt Lake City.

“It is amazing to look back on the past 10 years and see how my first internship has impacted my career path and enabled me to work on research that can shape the future of medicine,” Day says. “I’m grateful to the donors at the ALSAM Foundation as well as the science faculty members at USD for giving me and other students the opportunity to enrich our interests in science.”

Since it began, 39 USD faculty members have participated in the program, which gives high school students the chance to work with university professors and students, participate in on-campus summer research opportunities and hands-on workshops, enhance STEM skills and create relationships with role models and mentors. This approach enhances academic success and career achievement for all students, but especially for those who are underrepresented in STEM degree programs and professions.

Hannah Otte ’19 (BA), another Mater Dei student, also participated in Bridging the Gap and graduated from USD with a degree in biology.

“It’s hard to believe my very first lab experience was about seven years ago with Dr. (Nathalie) Reyns in marine biology,” Otte recalls. “Learning how research was done in an academic setting was hugely impactful to me.” Today, Otte (pictured) works at Illumina, a global leader in genomics. She supports projects with the company’s microarrays and sequencing-based COVID-19 diagnostic test.

“I realized how much I enjoy teaching and collaborating with others,” Otte continues. “The financial support and stipends allowed me to fully pursue these research opportunities, as I worked part time during semesters and full time during the summers.” — Krystn Shrieve

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