With more than 52,000 students at the University of Florida, the competition for leadership positions in student organizations, research opportunities and internships can be stiff. For Alessandra and Adriana Della Porta, competition hits close to home – or rather resides at home.
The twin sisters from Ponte Vedra Beach both study microbiology and cell science with goals of becoming medical doctors. Together they graduate from the UF College of Agricultural and Life Sciences (CALS) with their peers on April 29 at 7 p.m. in the Exactech Arena at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center.
Even with similar career aspirations, the sisters have crafted individual experiences at UF with regard to research, involvement and career plans.
“At the end of the day, we’re in competition, so that’s been really difficult,” Adriana said. “But we can shine because we’ve put our efforts in different places in (CALS) and at UF to maintain our independence. Because of this, we can truly be happy for one another and support one another. We’ve made our own names for ourselves – we aren’t ‘Adriana’s sister’ or ‘Alessandra’s sister.’”
That support has been crucial to their individual successes at UF. The sisters have been roommates since sophomore year and liken the experience to having a “built-in study buddy.” Having a companion who identified with similar feelings during times of stress has been a comfort to each of them.
“It’s a unique experience not a lot of people have,” Adriana said. “Half my household came with me to college and not many people can say that.”
Alessandra and Adriana were nervous when they discovered they would both be up for CALS senior awards. They were relieved to find they wouldn’t be finalists for the same award. Alessandra was named the recipient of the CALS Alumni and Friends Leadership Award and Adriana received the J. Wayne Reitz Medal of Excellence at the CALS awards ceremony held April 18.
The Family Business
Alessandra and Adriana have been intrigued by the medical world ever since they can remember. When the girls were younger, seven close family members passed away. This grieving experience led Adriana and Alessandra to have a strong desire for the medical profession.
“Our mom tells this great story of how we picked up the television remote while she was working; she looked up and saw us watching a surgery. We were about four or five years old at the time,” said Alessandra. “She said she’s always known we would do something in the medical field.”
A medical career is a new occupation to the Della Porta family. Adriana and Alessandra’s mother, Veronica Della Porta, works in insurance and took over the company her father started in 1968. The twins remember spending their summer breaks alphabetizing files and helping their mom around the business. They continue to help out remotely from Gainesville.
“Our mom could see (insurance) was not something we were passionate about,” Adriana said. “It was a challenge saying ‘no’ to the family business. Our grandpa always thought all of our family would want to continue doing that. Mom has acted as an advocate for us to follow our dreams.”
Raised by their single mother, Alessandra and Adriana learned the values of hard work and determination from her actions and outlook on life. These lessons helped the twins understand the amount of studying and discipline it takes to be a pre-med student.
“Because our mom had to do so much on her own, she was a good role model for us,” Adriana said. “We are incredibly independent and were capable of handling things like laundry and cooking before college. Our mom has ingrained a strong work ethic in us that I know will help us both succeed in medical school.”
Exploring What CALS Has to Offer
The Della Porta twins came to CALS without an agricultural background. Adriana was introduced to the college after she decided to take the course Plants, Plagues and People during the first semester of her freshman year. From that class, her professor Brantlee Spakes-Richter encouraged her to look into the CALS Challenge 2050 Project.
“She’s the one who noticed I was gravitating toward population growth and public health concern topics in agriculture,” Adriana said. “She directed me to ways I could further explore those interests and I’ve been a teaching assistant for that class two times since.”
After inquiring about the Challenge 2050 Project, Adriana met with the program’s director, Tony Andenoro, to learn how she could become involved. The Challenge 2050 Project aims to develop the capacity to meet the needs associated with an expected population size that will exceed 9.6 billion by the year 2050. From her experiences with the project, Adriana added the CALS leadership minor to her studies. She says her minor is just as critical as her major because it’s where her bedside manner comes from when working with patients.
“My advice to incoming students is to not be scared of trying something completely new,” Adriana said. “If you find something that excites you outside of your major track, don’t be afraid to explore that – you can make them work together.”
Her work with the Challenge 2050 Project led her to a maize genetics research project at Fifield Hall. In her research, Adriana looks at how to increase the crop yield during stressful conditions, such as flood and drought. The research can also apply to grasses such as sorghum, wheat, millet and rice.
In addition to becoming a CALS Ambassador, serving on the Dean of Students Office Student Code of Conduct Committee, and working as a counselor for the inaugural CALS Florida Youth Institute, Adriana joined Sigma Alpha, the agricultural professional sorority. Adriana found her fellow students and professors to be open to learning from one another. She likens CALS class discussions to the typical college experience one would find on a television show or movie.
“CALS is a perfect representation of what college is supposed to be,” Adriana said. “The diversity the college has to offer broadens your mind and perspective. Not every college is like that.”
A CALS Conversion
To distinguish her college experience from her sister, Alessandra initially majored in a different college at UF. But she quickly discovered it wasn’t the right path for her.
“I wrote this awful paper for a class in my previous college,” Alessandra said. “Writing hasn’t always been my strong suit. I knew I wanted to find opportunities to strengthen my communication skills and CALS had them. I realized my goal was to write an honors thesis before graduation.”
After hearing how much her sister enjoyed her major and CALS experience, Alessandra made the switch her sophomore year.
“I specifically remember asking Bryan Korithoski, an IFAS lecturer, ‘How do I CALS?’” Alessandra said with a laugh. “I had so many questions and he and Monika Oli, my advisers, helped me through everything.”
Korithoski and Oli, an IFAS senior lecturer, assisted Alessandra in her understanding of the various occupations a microbiologist can pursue through a careers seminar. Through their guidance, Alessandra successfully completed a summer internship with the Mayo Clinic where she was able to work with researchers to develop new cancer therapies.
“What sets [Alessandra and Adriana] apart from other students is that they aren’t stagnant,” Korithoski said. “Every semester they try to better themselves in some way. Students often think there is a linear way to med school. Even identical twin sisters have different paths of getting there.”
Alessandra jumped into activities within the college. She joined Sigma Alpha and will finish out her term as president this semester. Sigma Alpha has been able to partner with CALS to host the first annual “Thank a Teacher Week” to recognize faculty mentors like Korithoski and Oli. She took on a medical anthropology minor and accepted an executive role in the UF Center for Undergraduate Research Board of Students, holding a weekly science club for the middle schoolers to give back to the Gainesville community.
The once writing-shy senior has now completed her CALS honors scholar thesis on the research she conducted at UF Health Shands Hospital regarding chronic surgical site infections. Alessandra’s thesis addresses a staining method she developed that would make it easier to detect infections. This research has led her to an interest in emergency medicine.
“Without CALS’ resources and classes, I would never have been confident enough to write a 27-page thesis,” Alessandra said.
A Bright Future
Common words the twins’ professors and advisers use to describe them are: “driven,” “bright,” “engaging,” and “a strong sense of integrity.” With medical school on the horizon, Adriana will coordinate clinical trials for cardiac patients at UF Health Shands Hospital and Alessandra will be working as an emergency medical technician immediately after graduation.
Sigma Alpha adviser and IFAS lecturer Becky Raulerson has worked with both Adriana and Alessandra in their capacities as Sigma Alpha members and with Adriana as a Florida Youth Institute counselor. Raulerson believes CALS is lucky to have the “double gift” of working with and fostering the talents of both young women.
“When they finish medical school, I’ll be the first to sign up as their patient,” Raulerson said. “It’s been a blessing in my life to work with the both of them.”
Photo Caption: Adriana Della Porta (left) and Alessandra Della Porta (right) are pictured with CALS Dean Elaine Turner at the annual CALS Scholarship and Leadership Banquet. They each received senior awards for their outstanding scholarship, leadership and service in the UF and Gainesville communities.
By: Dana Edwards, 352-392-1963, firstname.lastname@example.org