A Legacy of Success: Two pioneering UC Santa Cruz programs prepare minority students for careers in science

Graduate student Brent Rubio (right) shows undergraduates (l-r) Christine Sinclair, Deborah Ortiz, Yonathan Essaw, and program assistant Yulianna Ortega his work in the Marine Natural Products Lab of Phillip Crews. (Photo by Jim MacKenzie)

Organic chemistry graduate student Brent Rubio has been on diving expeditions throughout the South Pacific, searching for natural compounds that could become the next weapon in the fight against cancer and other diseases.

But when he visits his native Hawaii, friends and family don't quiz him about grad school or his recently accepted article in the American Chemical Society's Journal of Natural Products.

"Instead, people want to know why I'm not already married with five kids," says Rubio, noting that even at the University of Hawaii, where he was an undergraduate, Pacific Islanders are a rarity in chemistry. Rubio, who describes his ethnicity as a "mixed plate"--Filipino, Hawaiian, Spanish, and Chinese--wants to return to Hawaii to teach chemistry. "Seeing a professor who is also a minority really inspires students like me."

Rubio has found his niche at UCSC in the Minority Biomedical Research Support (MBRS) program. MBRS and Minority Access to Research Careers (MARC) are two closely coordinated initiatives designed to ensure that more minorities are prepared to lead in the nation's science labs and classrooms. MARC is an honors program for undergraduates, while the MBRS program includes both undergraduates and graduate students.

The long-standing programs offer a combination of intensive lab work, faculty mentoring, staff support, and financial assistance. The programs' coordinator Malika Moutawakkil Bell, who earned undergraduate and master's degrees in chemistry from UCSC, knows firsthand that being a minority in higher education can be intimidating. "I think having a place to belong and having these cheerleaders rooting you on is invaluable," says Bell. "These students don't grow up having a cousin who has a Ph.D., so this is a big step for them."

"It's like a family," adds MARC director Alan Zahler. "We keep students from falling through the cracks."

Funded mainly by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) with support from UCSC, the year-round programs begin with eight-week summer workshops in laboratory research. Dozens of faculty in molecular, cell, and developmental biology, chemistry and biochemistry, environmental toxicology, and ecology and evolutionary biology provide crucial training for the students in their labs. NIH programs vary around the country, but at UCSC the focus is on encouraging students to pursue biomedical research.

"We create a community of scientists and give them access to cutting-edge research," says Zahler, a professor of molecular, cell, and developmental biology. "Once they experience that, they can take the ball and run with it."

To maximize lab time and minimize distractions from outside jobs, MARC students receive stipends, and MBRS students are paid hourly for working in the labs; students also get help with UCSC fees. "The money is important, but the really important part is the access to the research labs," said MBRS director Barry Bowman, a professor of molecular, cell, and developmental biology.

Both programs have benefited from remarkable continuity. Leo Ortiz, now a professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology, and former faculty member Victor Rocha cofounded the MARC program about 30 years ago, and Ortiz handed it off to Zahler only a year and a half ago. Bowman himself has been with the MBRS program almost from the beginning, and Bell's predecessor as the coordinator for both programs, Bernice Frankl, guided students from 1991 until her retirement in the fall of 2006.

While the students' research in both programs is as varied as their backgrounds, a common thread is their heightened sense of responsibility to give back.

For chemistry senior Deborah Ortiz, it's the fight against cancer. Ortiz balances two concurrent nanoparticle research projects, both with potential applications against cancer. "That's really close to my heart because my mother died of cancer" in 2006, Ortiz says. Of African American and Colombian descent, she followed her mother's advice to remain in school during her mother's ordeal and plans a chemistry career in cancer and lymphoma research.

MBRS neuroscience senior Yonathan Essaw is on the trail of the Wolbachia bacteria, which researchers hope to utilize in fighting malaria. The youth who knew only a few words of English when he arrived in the United States from Ethiopia at age 13 is now passionate about research. "You can see things happening. There's always something new to discover," he noted. Essaw hasn't decided between medical school and research, but wants to return to his native Ethiopia. "I want to help my people."

Moving to the next level seems to come naturally to these students. "About 45 percent of our fellows go on to get graduate degrees--one of the best rates in the country," says Zahler.

"We taught each other in a supportive and nonthreatening environment which was very different from that of my other science peers," recalled alumnus Cameron Bess, a graduate fellow in cellular biophysics at Rockefeller University in New York.

"As a minority, it was important to see that my scientific community was no different than I was, that I was not forfeiting my heritage by studying molecular biology or biochemistry," says another alumnus, Oliver Fregoso, a third-year graduate student at the Watson Schoool of Biological Sciences at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in Cold Spring Harbor, New York. "We had a lot of fun together as a group-we helped each other in classes, we worked hard together, we joked together. We were just always there for each other."


This article first appeared in the Spring 2007 issue of the UCSC Review magazine.