Doing the Things They are Capable of Doing

January 18, 2006

If we all did the things we are really capable of doing, we would literally astound ourselves….
Thomas Edison

When no one is there, it looks like a closet. Actually, it looks like a closet either way, but it used to be a mostly abandoned photography dark room. When three BMCC science professors approached Vice President Sadie Bragg with a research idea, she told them “if you can find a place to work, I’ll find the money for the equipment,” so they asked around about the possibility of using the tiny space. No one seemed to mind, as long as they cleaned it out. So with the help of a few students and some gifts and loans, Professors Patricia Molina, Lauren Goodwyn, and Sarah Salm converted N512 into a hotbed of scientific research. Today, the closet is stuffed with high tech equipment and lab supplies, and the professors are working with a team of seven students to further the field of molecular biology. They are extracting nuclear protein and examining DNA. They are working with cells and parts of cells that are a tenth of the size of a dust mite and smaller.

“Our students are practicing graduate level techniques,” Professor Salm said. “We followed the students’ lead and found that they were capable. The lab has evolved due to the interest and ability of the students.” The student researchers are quite serious, working 15-20 hours each week in the lab and the library, conducting research and reading scientific papers. Those 15-20 hours are on top of the homework and study time required by their course loads.

Most of the students found the lab through word of mouth, but the program is growing and gaining notoriety, and the professors expect that next semester they will implement an application process for interested students. Student have also been referred and funded through the Collegiate Science and Technology Entry Program (CSTEP) and the New York City Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation in Science (AMPS), two programs designed to increase underrepresented populations in science and technology programs.

The experience that the students gain in this lab also sets them up to take advantage of an accelerated BA/MA program at Hunter College. Professor Pat Rockwell of Hunter works with students who are interested in careers in biotechnology. Biology students at Hunter have until their fourth year to decide whether to graduate with their bachelor’s degree or put in for one more year and earn their master’s degree with a specialization in biotechnology in the fifth year.

Decoding Cancer and Herbs

Three main projects are underway in the fifth floor laboratory. The first began as Professor Molina’s doctoral dissertation. A gene called p53 creates a protein that protects the body from cells with DNA damage before they can develop into cancer. But p53 works in so many different ways that more research is necessary to understand the various mechanisms. “The p53 gene has many tasks, too many tasks,” said Molina. “It can pause growth, destroy the cell, trigger repairs, and it is involved in the aging process.” BMCC professors and students are focusing on the possibility that the number and pattern of phosphorus atoms that are bound to p53 is critical to one way p53 protects the body from cancer.

The second project is also related to cancer. It has become generally accepted that a diet high in fiber protects humans from colon cancer, but the reasons for this have been unclear. The BMCC research lab is investigating the possibility that a product of fiber after it is broken down in the body has healthful benefits. Butyrate is a short chain fatty acid that is produced by the fermentation of fiber within the colon. This fatty acid seems to protect the tract from cancer. The students and faculty are in the process of designing the experiments for this research.

The third project is investigating the way that an herbal remedy works. The herb, called “Kapadulla,” is the active ingredient in an ancient Chinese herbal remedy for erectile dysfunction that is widely grown and used in Guyana, South America. A Guyanese professor of chemistry at BMCC is working on mapping the chemical compound (the formula for the herb is unknown, as well as the mechanism by which the herb acts on the body to improve erectile function), while the research lab is exposing tissue to the herb and beginning to note the tissue’s response. This research is also still in the early stages.

Naming Names

So who are these students, these scientific prodigies? The senior students are Beremis Perez, Kwabena Bonsu, and Jen Estevez. Students who are new to the lab include Meilyn Tan and Roshauna Pieters. All of the students have career aspirations in science or medicine, and all of them plan to continue their studies after BMCC.

Beremis Perez is an international student from the Dominican Republic. He knew he wanted to study biology when he came to BMCC, but he struggled with the language barrier. He failed the ESL test the first time he took it, but fortunately the College Discovery program picked him up, gave him 20 hours of tutoring in English, and allowed him to retake the test. Perez made the Dean’s List for the first time last semester. He and Bonsu are spending much of their time working on the p53 project. “The p53 gene acts as a supervisor,” he said, “suppressing cell growth that leads to cancer.” When asked what motivated him to spend long hours in the small lab, Perez answered quickly. “My big dream is to help, to be part of something meaningful.”

Kwabena Bonsu is from Ghana. Bonsu was referred to the AMPS program, but he needed a faculty mentor and a project idea in order to apply to the program. Professor Molina agreed to act as his mentor, and that is how he got involved with the p53 research. AMPS now provides him with financial support and academic/career counseling. Bonsu likes high-tech machinery, and he is planning a career in biotech laboratory research.

Jen Estevez is a returning student from New Jersey. She worked in accounting after graduating from high school. But she always loved science. Her first semester at BMCC, she got blocked out of the popular biology courses. A fellow student referred her to the fifth floor lab, and she got involved in the butyrate project. When Estevez was finally able to enroll in the biology courses, she was amazed at how much easier the course work was for her because of her experience in the laboratory. Estevez hopes to earn a B.S. in biochemistry and then begin a career in laboratory work and research.

Footing the Bill

Scientific research is expensive, so who’s paying for the equipment and the supplies and for everyone’s time? The funding for this project comes from a variety of sources. The BMCC Science Department purchased the lab ware and the reagents, and a BMCC Faculty Development Grant provided $3000. CSTEP and AMPS pay the project $250 per student per semester for the training and experience that their students are getting, and that does not include the stipends that they provide the students, especially over the summer, so they can devote the long hours necessary to get valid and reliable results. Two CUNY grants have provided a major portion of the funding. A PSC-CUNY Collaborative Community College Research Grant awarded the p53 project $30,000, and a CUNY Equipment Grant, which is shared with Professor Ryvkin, covered some of the laboratory equipment costs.

Vice President Bragg secured some additional funding for the group due to the professors’ intense work with the students over the summer. She also awarded each of the students who were in need of funding $1000 so they could afford to spend six weeks of their summer break in the lab. “I felt very strongly that we should support the students,” Vice President Bragg said. “My job is to find a way to make things happen for the faculty and give the students the best opportunities they can have. My mission and the mission of this college is to find a place for each student to excel to the best of his or her ability.”

Private companies in New York City who work in some aspect of biotechnology are also organizing an initiative to fund biotech education. The goal is to encourage as many students as possible to complete graduate work in science so that these companies have a capable pool of professionals from which they can hire. CUNY is particularly attractive to local companies looking to improve the biotech market by investing in students because CUNY students tend to be more rooted in New York City than students from other regional colleges and universities. Most CUNY students are from New York City; they live here and they want to stay here.

Developing Aptitude, Developing Character

Professors Molina, Goodwyn, and Salm care as much about the students’ personal development as they do about solving the mysteries of cancer. The scientists in them expect a rigorous approach to the lab work and strict adherence to the scientific method, but the teachers in them are excited about the life lessons their students are learning. Self-confidence, critical thinking, problem solving, leadership, effective communication – these words peppered the professors comments as they discussed the skills the students were learning in the lab. “The students learn there is more than one right answer,” the three of them agreed, “and also the importance of seeing what is real, not trying to please anyone with your results.”

share this story »