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Summer program helps minorities pursue advanced degrees

Hiram Ortega-Cruz wants to go to medical school, although he hasn't yet decided whether he will apply to schools on the mainland or in his native Puerto Rico. But the senior from the University of Puerto Rico at Rio Piedras noted that 10 weeks of research at MIT's world-renowned biology department -- and maybe a recommendation from an MIT professor -- will look pretty good on his application.

Mr. Ortega-Cruz was one of 29 students from around the United States to take part in the 1999 MIT Summer Research Program (MSRP). The program seeks to turn around the numbers that show that African American, Mexican American, Native American and Puerto Rican students are seriously underrepresented in math, engineering and physical and biological sciences in the United States.

"Our statistics show that approximately 50 percent of our interns are going on to pursue PhDs, 28 percent are pursuing MDs, 16 percent are going for master of science degrees, and the remaining students are either pursuing various professional degrees or are going into industry," said Roy A. Charles, assistant dean for graduate students and MSRP program manager. "We are excited about these numbers and are glad that the MIT Summer Research Program is playing a role in these students' decisions."

Students came to the program -- now in its 14th year -- from Worcester Polytechnic Institute and from Louisiana, Arkansas, Texas and beyond. They worked on projects that ranged from graphically representing tradeoffs of two-dimensional vs. three-dimensional visualization in computer modeling to biologically synthesizing the AIDS drug Crixivan.

Mr. Ortega-Cruz worked on a protein that stimulates the proliferation of white blood cells. This substance may help AIDS patients, who have compromised immune systems, and cancer patients, whose chemotherapy kills off beneficial white blood cells as well as cancerous ones.

Timothy Gilmartin, an MIT postdoctoral fellow who works in the lab of Alexander Rich, the William Thompson Sedgwick Professor of Biophysics, in which Mr. Ortega-Cruz interned, said he was a little leery of working with the student. "I heard he hadn't done any research before, so I thought I would have to teach him everything. But he caught on really quickly." He also said Mr. Ortega-Cruz provided some much-appreciated company during long hours of watching over experiments.

Dr. Gilmartin was "more than a partner. He was also my friend," Mr. Ortega-Cruz said.

Many of the participants spoke in glowing terms about their experiences in MIT labs. Professor/mentors, lab partners and supervisors were lauded during presentations of research results the participants made on August 11 and 12, the final days of the program.

Whitehead Institute postdoctoral fellow Leila Bradley "is the most wonderful person in the whole wide world," declared Jennifer Rayner, a junior at North Carolina Central University in Durham, who studied gene expression in zebrafish embryos.

"I didn't mean to cry," said Dorothy Harris from the University of Maryland Eastern Shore as she ended her presentation with tears of gratitude for biology graduate student Brett Pellock, postdoctoral fellow Mark Sutton and others in the lab of her mentor, Professor of Biology Graham C. Walker. "I am truly thankful. I think I've had the best mentor out of anyone," said Ms. Harris, who worked on research into the genetic regulation of a plant's sugar synthesis.

MSRP receives corporate and foundation support as well as support from the Institute's faculty and administration. Some participants are directly funded by MIT programs such as the Center for Innovation and Product Development and the Center for Material Science and Engineering, which this year hosted three students, including Astrid Colon, a senior at the University of Puerto Rico at Mayag��ez. This is her second year in the program, which she heard about from friends who had participated in previous years.

Ms. Colon, a chemical engineering major, has worked in biomedical engineering and this summer focused on polymer technology "to explore different options before choosing a field." She said she will definitely apply to graduate school this year.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on September 25, 1999.

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