Majoring in Curiosity

January 7, 2008

This past summer and during this academic year, 12 students took part in a laboratory research project aimed at studying how two chemicals associated with many foods can protect the body against cancer.  On the face of it, their experience was typical of what they might have expected at any top-rated four-year university—except that such programs and the lab facilities to support them are a rarity at community colleges. This one took place in a full-scale tissue culture/molecular biology lab at BMCC.

Today, several of those students continue to log long hours in the lab under the supervision of three BMCC science faculty members – Sarah Salm, Patricia DeLeon and Lauren Goodwyn.  As they gain proficiency in protein extraction, culturing cells, data analysis and other research skills, they are shedding new light on how butyrate, a byproduct of the metabolism of fiber, and omega fatty acids slow the growth of colon cancer. “The students are practicing graduate level techniques and have the potential to make an invaluable contribution to our scientific knowledge,” Salm says.

They are not an isolated phenomenon. These days, BMCC students are actively pursuing a range of ambitious research projects initiatives on the frontiers of scientific research. 

This past summer, for example, Ryan Natividad received a BMCC STEM (Science/Technology/Engineering/Math) grant to work with associate professor Melissa Nashat in a project at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, where he analyzed P24, a protein commonly present in brains inflamed by HIV encephalitis. 

“Lab work takes time and patience and you don’t always get the results you’re looking for,” says Natividad, who hopes to become a physician.  “Still, it’s incredibly exciting.”  As a premed student, Nashat adds, “Ryan will find that he has an advantage over his peers because he’s had this experience.”

Bridge to science
In a somewhat unusual research venture that joins the disparate worlds of biology and engineering, students, Nazia Fyazi, Henry Chen and Luis Noboa are playing a key role in the National Museum of Health and Medicine’s Visible Embryo project.  Working under the supervision of Professor Richard Hendrix, the students are building a virtual model of the lens of the eye and using cell data to detect development irregularities in a human embryo.

“As a biology student, I provide a bridge to Henry and Luis, whose background is in engineering,” says Fyazi.  Noboa notes that he and Chen were tapped by Hendrix for their knowledge of Pro-E, a three dimensional modeling program used to create the lens model. “Given that our background is in engineering, not science, we were somewhat intimidated at first,” he admits. “But Professor Hendrix has been extremely patient in explaining the biology of the eye to us.  As a result, we’ve had an opportunity both to learn about human anatomy and hone engineering techniques that will be extremely important to us as engineers.”

Diversity of backgrounds
For many students, the path to scientific research has been anything but direct. Yannick Toussaint, who holds a Bachelors degree in theater from City College, is currently enrolled in science courses at BMCC and will enter the college’s nursing program in January.  “I’d taken Professor Salm’s microbiology course and was also working as a lab assistant,” she says. “When she told us about the summer research program, I was very interested – and very fortunate to be picked.” Daniel Acevedo earned a Bachelors degree in business and was employed by Morgan Stanley before deciding to return to school as a BMCC science major. Now in his third semester and continuing his involvement in the butyrate-omega project, he plans to become a physician’s assistant.  “One of things I like most about the lab work is its collaborative nature,” he says. “We each bring specific skills to the table.  There’s a lot of brainstorming and give-and-take.”

Acevedo’s lab partner, Birender Singh, likewise started out in an area far removed from science – as a managerial economics major at a Kansas university. Then, inspired by his aunt, who embarked on a career in pharmacy in her 40s, he moved to New York to begin studies at BMCC with a view to following her into the same profession.

“Dan is right about the collaborative nature of the work,” he says.  “Since I wasn’t a science major, I’ve learned a lot of basic stuff from him – and taught him a lot of math, which is my strong suit.”

No place for ego-trippers
Nursing major Joel Justino, who also works on the butyrate study, agrees that teamwork is a critical prerequisite of any successful research effort.  “I love getting ‘under the hood’ and doing all the nitty-gritty stuff, like counting and culturing cells,” he says. “But you’ve also got to be able to work well with other people and keep an open mind. You learn both to verbalize your ideas and to check your ego at the door.” 

Research colleague Tenzin Yeshi is likewise eyeing a career in medicine and hopes to attend Hunter College after earning her Associates degree. Born in Nepal, Yeshei arrived in the U.S. in 2003 and completed her final two years in high school in New York before enrolling in BMCC.

“I thought this was a better option than attending a large university where I might easily go unnoticed,” she says. “The teachers here are very much hands-on, and that has certainly been the case in my lab experience.” 

Working on the colon cancer project “has been an incredible experience,” says Olapeju Olasokan, a science major in her final semester at BMCC.  “I’d always planned to go to medical school, but now I’m thinking about applying to a joint MD/PhD program, where you’re trained as both a physician and a scientist. I feel I can make a contribution by continuing to work in a laboratory setting.”

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