Commencement Spotlight: Danijela Covo

With an invigorating sense of purpose, the 2023 Trojan pharmacology and drug development graduate embraces challenges and launches a career in clinical trials and research.

Dani Covo was born in Serbia during her family’s exodus from their native Croatia to escape the Kosovo War. They immigrated to Mesa, Ariz., in 2001, when she was just 2 years old and her older sister was 4. Their mother and father spoke no English, but they knew the ethnic genocide made it impossible to return home. So the family of four slept on a relative’s couch as they started a new life in the U.S.

As Covo grew to adulthood, she pursued a bachelor’s degree in pharmacology and drug development from the USC Mann School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences. She graduated in December 2022 — 21 years after her family immigrated here for a better, safer life.

But that sense of safety had fallen apart nearly two years earlier. In January 2020, Covo’s father was diagnosed with end-stage pancreatic cancer. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and Covo wanted to apply her blossoming expertise to helping patients while advancing medical science. She took a leave of absence while working as an assistant at Celerion, a clinical research institute in Tempe, Ariz. Working directly with trial participants and researchers, Covo assisted in Regeneron monoclonal antibody studies and Merck COVID-19 vaccine trials. 

Covo and her friends during the 2022 USC “Conquest!” concert and rally. (Photo courtesy of Dani Covo)

Covo knows firsthand that clinical research occurs in an often stressful environment that demands precise attention to detail. “I found I thrived in the chaos and looked forward to what challenges each new day would bring,” she says, noting that such work reaffirmed her “sense of purpose and understanding that this is what I was meant to pursue.”

Through her father’s illness, she felt inspired to do more for families fighting cancer diagnoses after all standards of care are exhausted. She returned to campus in fall 2021.

Today, Covo works as a clinical research coordinator of phase 1 cancer trials at the Samuel Oschin Comprehensive Cancer Institute at Cedars-Sinai. “I don’t believe I would have made it to this point had I not chosen USC and this major and met the people I have at the school,” she says.

Covo’s success to date meant overcoming significant obstacles as her family adjusted to life as Americans. Although a top student, her high school experience was marked by limited resources. Covo said the community, the support, and the “one-on-ones” at USC Mann stood in stark contrast to her high school experience, which was marked by limited resources and minimal access to faculty advising. “The support was overwhelming,” she said. “I found where I belong.”

“I have met the most beautiful people here at USC—people I laughed with, cried with, and become lifelong friends with. For me, the greatest marker for success is happiness, and I believe I have achieved that in my time at USC.”

Dani Covo

“She always sat in the front of the class, and always asked great questions,” said Roger Clemens, adjunct professor at the Mann School, who had Covo as a student in the course Food Safety: The Good, the Bad and the Deadly. “She was clearly a leader on a team, and yet she was very sensitive to the dynamics of different cultures.”

At USC, she took a sailing class, braving the storm with fellow sailor classmates, and later went on a hiking and surfing trip with Peaks and Professors, a student club that brings students and faculty together in outdoor ventures.

Covo geared up for wild storms and possible evacuations during a safety demonstration on an overnight trip to Santa Catalina Island, Calif. as part of her USC sailing class. (Photo courtesy of Dani Covo)
After training with the USC Running Club, Covo ran the Surf-City Marathon, her first-ever half-marathon, in honor of her father who passed a few weeks prior to the race. (Photo courtesy of Dani Covo)
Covo and her friend during a surfing trip to San Onofre Beach, Calif. with USC Peaks and Professors, a student organization that unites USC faculty and students in outdoor adventures. (Photo courtesy of Dani Covo)

She also wanted to help the university aid fellow students. So she took a work-study position at the USC International Academy, which supports students coming to USC from all over the world. “I have met the most beautiful people here at USC—people I laughed with, cried with and become lifelong friends with,” Covo says. “For me, the greatest marker for success is happiness, and I believe I have achieved that in my time at USC.”

Covo plans on returning for a master’s degree in regulatory science or experimental therapeutics in the near future. “I can’t see myself anywhere other than USC,” for her studies, she said.