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M.G. Perez
Madison Wagner, 22, works in a science hall laboratory at California State University San Marcos, Tuesday, as she prepares to graduate with a bachelor's degree in chemistry, San Marcos, CA, May 17, 2022

Cal State San Marcos graduate turned heartbreak into hope

Just over 4,400 students will graduate as part of the Class of 2022 at California State University San Marcos this weekend, in the university's first unrestricted graduation ceremonies in three years.

More than half of them are the first in their family to receive a bachelor's degree.

Madison Wagner, 22, is among the graduates. She is receiving a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and will be a commencement speaker. She has a story of heartache and hope to share with her classmates and anyone living with the loss of a loved one to mental illness.

Cal State San Marcos graduate turned heartbreak into hope

Wagner almost did not make it to this moment, because a community college counselor once told her chemistry was too difficult for her to pursue.

“There was a big part of me that did believe what that counselor told me and I did think that I couldn't do it,” she said, “but there was a drive for me. I wanted to make great medicine and I knew, to do that, I needed to go into science.”

Wagner is a first-generation college graduate who grew up in Valley Center as a child rodeo champion. She went on to be crowned Miss Rodeo California in 2019. That was an accomplishment someone else told her she could also not achieve. Wagner used that as motivation to encourage more girls to consider a career in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics.

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Madison Wagner
The Wagner family in a 2019 photo. Madison poses as Miss Rodeo California with her parents Billy and Madelyn Wagner.

“Behind all the glitz and glam and rhinestones, I am a scientist and you can be, too,” she would tell young female rodeo competitors. “No matter how you look or what you love, there is a place for everybody in science.”

The year she won the state rodeo title, she also transferred to Cal State San Marcos to pursue chemistry. That move was prompted by a personal mission in memory of her older brother, Pierson.

“He suffered really severely with schizophrenia and depression,” she reflected. Madison and her parents, Billy and Madelyn, lost Pierson suddenly to mental illness when he was just 16.

The stigma attached to his death is something the young scientist is determined to end while she continues her work in the laboratory.

“It really inspired me to make a change and contribute what I could to making good medicine and making changes in the world,” she said.

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Madison Wagner
Madison Wagner is seen here with her older brother, Pierson, in an undated photo provided by her family.

Wagner has been mentored by Dr. Robert Iafe, a Cal State San Marcos associate professor who has trained students who went on to do work in laboratories run by Nobel Prize winners. It’s a perfect match for the former rodeo queen determined to prove she is saddled and ready to change the world of medicine.

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M.G. Perez
Madison Wagner, 22, works on an experiment with her mentor Dr. Robert Iafe, an Associate Professor of chemistry at the California State University San Marcos, Tuesday. The nuclear magnetic resonance instrument helps separate chemical compounds for use in the development of medicine, San Marcos, CA, May 17, 2022

“I want students to reach their potential and achieve their goals,” Iafe said, “even if it’s a small one that others have said ‘Nah don’t worry about it.’ If it’s something that you want to do, then definitely try.”

In August, Wagner will begin her Ph.D. in chemistry with the prestigious Scripps Research institution. She said she will mention her brother, Pierson, in her commencement address on Friday. “I think it’s a lot about finding your gifts and where you can apply them to help people. So, for me, science was a gift,” she said.

She concluded, “I just feel very proud of how far I’ve come. Thankful for him and thankful to my parents most of all.”

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Ernie Tyler Photography
Madison Wagner, 22, will be the commencement speaker at her graduation ceremony, Friday, San Marcos, CA

As a former special education teacher, I look forward to connecting with you and reporting on stories that often go underreported in education. #WeAreBetterTogether
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