Cory Gerlach (HBS ’14), now a graduate student at Harvard University, never thought he would go to college. After “barely” graduating high school in 2005, he traveled a bit and moved to Hollywood, not giving much thought to school, not thinking it was even an option for him. “For some people,” he says, “the thought of not succeeding never pops into their head. It seems a given that whatever they want to do, they can do. It wasn’t like that for me.”
When his partner decided to go back to school, Gerlach thought he would try to take a class too. But it took the insistence of his partner, Corey Juarez, to get him to follow through: “‘no, you’re going, you’re going to do it,’ [Juarez said]. I just needed someone to tell me that, because then I really liked it.”
He and Juarez eventually moved to Portland and started taking classes at Portland Community College.
“My first quarter, I took Math 60 and a basic writing class, which pretty much most people going into college have already taken,” says Gerlach. “I never pictured [getting] a degree, even when I was serious about community college.”
Gradually, though, he fell under the spell of his science classes. “I didn’t realize [before] that certain questions I had had knowable answers. I didn’t know I could ask certain questions. I was so naïve and ignorant to anything related to school, so once I started hearing, ‘no, we know this stuff, we know why the trees change colors every fall,’ it became addictive.”
His passion for science discovered, Gerlach, along with Juarez, decided to enroll at Oregon State University, and both were accepted as transfer students into the Honors College (HC).
At Oregon State, he opted for the intensive bioresource research major with an option in toxicology, and he started looking for ways to get involved in research on campus. His lab experience began with a work study doing mostly maintenance work. Then, he transitioned into Dr. Robert Tanguay’s lab in the Department of Environmental and Molecular Toxicology to study the toxicity of a flame retardant compound, a legally-required furniture additive that prevents combustion. Little is known about the effects of compounds such as this, although considerable evidence suggests they are harmful to human and animal development. Gerlach’s research looked at the development of zebrafish when they were exposed to these chemicals.
The results indicated that the exposed zebrafish did experience developmental issues. Gerlach is now trying to get the study published in a peer-reviewed journal and has already traveled around the country to share the research at conferences, working hard on classes all the while. He maintained a 4.0 GPA at Oregon State and was recognized in spring, 2013 with the HC’s Honors Promise Finishing Scholarship, awarded to ten top students entering their final undergraduate year.
Getting into Harvard was the realization of an ultimate dream: “I remember the first time I said out loud that I wanted to go to Harvard. It sounded like the pinnacle and sounded so symbolic. I was obsessed with that even before I knew why I wanted to go.”
He ended up having a number of options for graduate school, including Oregon State and Duke University, which has a highly-recognized toxicology program, but he felt a stronger connection with Harvard. “It still feels unreal,” he says. “I never thought something like this would even be possible. I have to re-check the emails to make sure it’s actually happening.”
Gerlach is quick to make sure he doesn’t come off as arrogant about his successes, though. “I don’t want anyone else to feel bad comparing themselves to me,” he says. “I used to do that. I would compare myself to people who got things that sounded cool even if I didn’t want them.”
“I’ve been very lucky and fortune with certain opportunities,” Gerlach says. “I really believe that everyone has their own journey, and I really respect other peoples’ journeys. I know going to Harvard isn’t the pinnacle for everyone…but my goal is to inspire other people who are in the situation I was in to dream big, to do whatever it takes to get [their goals]. Make the sacrifices. It was worth sacrificing my social life…. To me, the most important thing was surrounding myself with people who inspired me to be a greater person.”
And even though he has a specific plan for his Harvard studies — he’s entering the biological sciences and public health program — he’s still not forcing constraints on his education. “You think [getting into grad school] is it, but it’s a beginning to a whole new adventure. I’m really planning to change my mind about my career as I get exposed to new ideas.” He says he wouldn’t be surprised if his passion for politics leads to a transition into a government agency position to help craft policies.
“It’s just the beginning of a whole new chapter,” he says. “Maybe a whole new book.”
By Jessica Kibler