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Top graduating senior’s life trajectory is amazing

It's fitting that the life of Josh Biddle, UC Berkeley's top graduating senior, would read like the lyrics of "Amazing Grace." During high school in Marin County, Calif., and at a subsequent boarding program for troubled teens in Colorado, he was lost. But while driving a tractor in his Great-aunt Velma's farm, finding his niche in science at City College of San Francisco and transferring to UC Berkeley, he was found. This Sunday, he will share his story at Commencement Convocation.

It’s fitting that the life of Josh Biddle, top graduating senior at the University of California, Berkeley, would read like the lyrics of “Amazing Grace.”

University Medalist Josh Biddle

University Medalist Josh Biddle (Wendy Edelstein photo) Click on image for print-quality download

During high school in Marin County, Calif., and at a subsequent boarding program for troubled teens in Colorado, he was lost. But while driving a tractor on his Great-aunt Velma’s farm, finding his niche in science at City College of San Francisco and transferring to UC Berkeley, he was found.

This Sunday (May 16), the 28-year-old integrative biology major will share his story with thousands of his peers at UC Berkeley’s Commencement Convocation. There, he will receive the coveted University Medal. His 100-year-old Great-aunt Velma plans to attend. The award comes with a $2,500 scholarship that Biddle will use to pay his way to Kenya, where he will do clinical outreach on behalf of the Ray of Hope Foundation. In September, he starts medical school at UC San Francisco.

“The redirection of his life’s trajectory has been amazing — going from one of self-medication and questioning his purpose in the world, to his present life of actively and passionately doing work to improve the lives of individuals from marginalized groups,” wrote John Matsui, assistant dean of biological sciences at UC Berkeley and director of the Biology Scholars Program, in his letter recommending Biddle for the award.Tall, bespectacled and handsome in a geeky “Clark Kent” way, Biddle said he is honored to be the first community college transfer student to win the University Medal. But he also wants his peers to know that, despite his 4.0 GPA, he’s hardly a whiz kid. “In class, I ask more questions than most folks because I’m comfortable with my ignorance,” he said. “I’m willing to put myself out there and learn.”

Four University Medal finalists

Four University Medal finalists

  • The lessons they learned at Berkeley
  • What makes them tick

Biddle transferred to UC Berkeley from City College of San Francisco in 2008 — after twice being rejected — and worked hard to make up for lost time. His research at UC Berkeley and at UCSF has included testing the drug resistance of mesothelioma cancer; how stress affects the length of telomeres, the protective caps at the end of DNA strands; and how estrogen receptors in the brains of female meadow voles promote social bonding.

Ultimately though, Biddle said, he’s not a lab hermit, but a social creature drawn to healing others, just as others once helped him. “I like science, and I like hospitals, and there’s enough good in the medical profession to make it right for me,” he said.

While a UC Berkeley student, Biddle also volunteered at the health clinic at Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco and tutored inmates at San Quentin State Prison through UC Berkeley’s Teach in Prison Program.

Born in New York City and raised in San Rafael, Calif., Biddle excelled at Marin Catholic High School, then switched to public high school after his freshman year to broaden his horizons. Ill-equipped to deal with the freedom and peer pressure, he began to experiment with pot and alcohol. Still, with minimal effort, he graduated in the top 20 percent of his class, and in the fall of 2000, he enrolled at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

But his freshman year was lost on him, he said, as he failed to “plug in” and find his niche. When it came time to pay tuition for his sophomore year, he was unable to write the check: “It just wasn’t a good use of money,” he said.

He quit university, enrolled at the College of Marin, and continued to struggle academically and emotionally. His parents told him to get help, or they would cut him loose. He opted for help in the form of AIM House, a therapeutic boarding program for troubled teens and young adults in Boulder, Colorado.

In group therapy sessions and conversations with Bill Sell, the clinical director there, the fog began to lift. Biddle realized he had never learned to communicate with his family. “Bill would facilitate phone conversations between me and my parents,” he said. “He changed my life in really profound ways.”

After six months as a resident and more than a year as a staff mentor at AIM House, Biddle moved in with his then-94-year-old Great-aunt Velma Biddle at her farm in Holyoke, Colo. Velma had earned a math degree in the 1930s and served in U.S. naval intelligence during World War II. For her 90th birthday, she rode a donkey in the forests of Mexico to study Monarch butterflies.

“Her fascination with the natural world rubbed off on me,” Biddle said.

Velma convinced her great nephew to go back to college. But before resuming his education, Biddle needed one more adventure. In January 2004, he crossed the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas, to Ciudad Juarez, and headed south. In Mexico, he reflected on his own and other people’s suffering.

Eight months later, he decided it was time to turn over a new leaf. From Guatemala, he took buses north and eventually moved into an apartment near San Francisco’s Tenderloin District. In January 2005, he enrolled at City College of San Francisco. After muddling through humanities courses, he took introductory courses to geology and then chemistry. Suddenly, everything clicked.

“It all made sense to me,” he said. “It just grabbed me.”

Biddle realized he wanted to be a doctor while volunteering in the emergency room at San Francisco General. The seminal moment came, he said, when he watched a surgeon cut open the chest of a woman who had been shot and take her heart in his hand and physically pump it.

“It was the most exciting thing I’d ever seen,” he said.

His mentors at City College urged him to apply to UC Berkeley and prepare for medical school. He started classes in spring 2008 and found camaraderie in the Biology Scholars Program, which supports underrepresented and nontraditional biology students. He also found projects to work on through the Undergraduate Research Apprentice Program and mentors such as neuroscientists Annaliese Beery and Darlene Francis.

And he began to volunteer in the health clinic at Glide church. Though not religious in the traditional sense, Biddle began to attend Glide’s Wednesday night “Speak Out,” where people down on their luck shared stories. Biddle eventually read a poem he wrote called “Speak Out.” When Glide’s Rev. Cecil Williams heard it, he asked Biddle to present it at the church’s Sunday “Celebration” event. Biddle became a regular at Glide and last year traveled with a group from the church to the slums of Nairobi, Kenya, to assess community health needs.

In February, Biddle received an e-mail notifying him that he was eligible to apply for the University Medal. At first, he said, he rejected the idea of competing to be the Medalist, because, regardless of how far he’s come, he still grapples with that lost kid inside him who looks for the easy way out.

But then he thought, why not give it a go?

“I still struggle, but I feel so much better as a person than I did ten years ago,” he said. “Graduating from UC Berkeley and getting into medical school is the first definitive goal that I projected into the future and then accomplished. And it feels good.”

“Yeah, it’s pretty cool.”