As a third generation New Mexico State University graduate, James Kilcrease has had a unique journey to commencement. The Las Cruces native battled cancer while in graduate school.
Kilcrease received his doctorate in plant and environmental sciences at the 2013 fall commencement ceremony Saturday at the Pan American Center. He was named the NMSU Alumni Association Outstanding Doctoral Graduate Student and will carry a banner at the commencement ceremony.
After graduating with a bachelor's degree from NMSU in December 2009, Kilcrease began graduate school in August 2010. A cancer diagnosis, surgery and treatment for testicular cancer in the summer of 2011 couldn't sidetrack Kilcrease from his goal of earning a doctorate.
"It was a battle, but I tried to keep as busy as I possibly could, because it helps to keep your mind off everything," he said.
Kilcrease, who has been cancer free for two years, did not take a break from school for treatments. He said online classes including dissertation hours allowed him to maintain his status as a full-time student while working from a laptop in the hospital.
"I thought about it very scientifically," Kilcrease said. "You see a goal at the end, and then you just have to take it day by day by day until you get to that goal. First was surgery, then was recovery, then was chemotherapy, it was just day in and day out. You could see the light at the end of the tunnel, and you just had to keep going because there is no turning back once you start."
Following cancer treatments, Kilcrease was inspired to help others that endured the challenges he faced. He is raising funds for the Aggie Cancer Survivor Scholarship, which he created.
"When you couple something like cancer with grad school, it creates a mountain, not even a mountain, it creates Mount Everest," he said.
Kilcrease is more than halfway toward his goal of raising $10,000 so that the scholarship will be endowed.
"Once it becomes an endowed scholarship, the scholarship will pay out forever," he said "It will affect and enrich other graduate students lives for years and years to come."
With Saturday's ceremony, Kilcrease is thinking ahead and hoping to return to NMSU.
"I've always kind of pushed through things and looked toward the future. Now that I'm about to graduate, I'm already starting to think about 10 years down the road. I want to come back and teach," Kilcrease said.
He said his next step is job hunting. "I love microscopy, so I'm kind of tied to plants, and I'm trying to dig my heels in and stay with plants."
Getting a degree in agriculture wasn't always the plan for Kilcrease, but a former high school teacher introduced him to the entomology, plant pathology and weed science department at NMSU.
"I come from a long line of engineers," he said. "Both my grandfather and my father are engineers. They both graduated from here as well."
Kilcrease said he found his home in the agriculture college following a tour from a department head.
After earning his bachelor's degree, he began his graduate studies and was accepted to work under Mary O'Connell, a distinguished professor in the plant and environmental sciences department. Kilcrease has focused on chile research as a graduate student.
"She gave me a lot of freedom, but guided me in the right direction," he said. "I got to really explore a lot of different avenues that our lab hasn't looked into before. It just turns out that chile is such a wonderful crop here in New Mexico; I couldn't have picked a better place."
Kilcrease has studied the pigments in chile peppers, which indicate nutritional properties of the peppers, not the heat, a common misconception.
"I've done a lot of molecular analyses as well as microscopy, linking physical structures to chemical profiles, for the goal of getting more nutrition and more color into a single chile pepper."
Following three and a half years of research and exams and an unexpected health issue, Kilcrease will receive a doctorate degree from his hometown university.