Eight Top CUNY Students From Many Countries Win Salk Scholarships To Fulfill Medical School Dreams

June 18, 1997 | The University

Natalya Koltunova, Catherine Okonji and Rhondalyn McClean are among eight top-ranking CUNY graduates who decided to become physicians after experiencing suffering and/or lack of health care in places as diverse as the Ukraine, Nigeria, and Harlem. They are among eight outstanding CUNY students who received prestigious Jonas E. Salk scholarships and seven who received honorary Salk Scholarships on June 9 to study medicine.

All have been accepted to leading medical schools including Harvard, Cornell, Mount Sinai, and McGill University. Trustee Edith B. Everett and Chancellor W. Ann Reynolds presented the awards and medical diagnostic kits to the winners at a ceremony at Baruch College, CUNY.

Karen Hasby, a science reporter for WPIX-TV, addressed the winners and their families. The students were chosen because of their brilliant academic records, the quality of their research projects and their volunteer work. Many of the winners overcame economic and personal hardships and language barriers in order to reach their goals.

The scholarships are named for Dr. Jonas E. Salk, discoverer of the polio vaccine, who graduated from City College in 1934. They carry a $1,000 yearly stipend toward medical school tuition. When Dr. Salk was offered a ticker tape parade by New York City in 1955 in honor of his discovery, he asked that the money be used for scholarships instead. Since then, CUNY pre-med students have received the scholarships and gone on to leadership positions in medical research and medical practice.

The City University of New York, the nation’s leading urban university, comprises 10 senior colleges, six community colleges, one technical college, a graduate school, a law school, a medical school and an affiliated school of medicine. More than 200,000 degree-credit students and 150,000 adult and continuing education students are enrolled throughout the five boroughs of the City of New York. More information is available on the CUNY Website (http://www.cuny.edu).

1997 Jonas E. Salk Scholars

Matvey Brokhin, Brooklyn
Hunter College

Matvey Brokhin was always interested in science, particularly nature, while growing up in St. Petersburg, Russia. But he was also intensely interested in many other things, including music. At age 16 when he needed to make a career decision, he chose music and entered the St. Petersburg State Institute of Culture, majoring in orchestral conducting, a course of study that taught him a lot about how to deal with people.

In 1993, just as he realized that he really wanted to go to medical school, his family received permission to emigrate to the United States. In New York he learned English quickly and enrolled in Hunter College, where he was able to complete his music degree, take science classes in a pre-med course and graduate with a perfect GPA. He volunteered in the emergency room at New York Community Hospital and as a tutor for the Office for Students with Disabilities and with the Math Learning Center at Hunter.

As a participant in the Hunter College Linkage Program at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, Matvey conducted a research project with Professor of Hematology Rona Singer Weinberg titled “Sickle Cell Anemia and the Effects of Hematopoietic Growth Factors on the Growth and Differentiation of Peripheral Blood Progenitor Cells from Patients with Sickle Cell Disease.” Next year, he will attend the SUNY Health Science Center in Brooklyn.

Natalya Koltunova, Rego Park
Hunter College

Natalya Koltunova was born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan where she seriously injured her eye as a small child while playing. An operation and eight years of therapy followed. The care and encouragement of one of her doctors motivated her to seek a career in medicine, although she was discouraged by members of her family, some of whom were doctors, because it was a difficult career in Russia. Working as a nurse’s aide in a city clinic reinforced her desire to be a doctor. When the family came here in 1991, the challenges and difficulties of being an immigrant and learning a new language taught her how much support can help people to survive during hard times. Soon after coming to the United States she volunteered in the Jackson Heights-Elmhurst Kehillah Community Center, interpreting for the Russian-speaking population of the neighborhood, and later at the Elmhurst Hospital Center Eye Clinic.

A Golden Key National Honor Society Scholarship Award winner in her junior year at Hunter, she was one of five Hunter students chosen to participate in the summer workshop offered by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Her research work at the Hematology/Oncology Laboratory of Cornell University Medical College under the direction of Dr. Roy Silverstein is on “Regulated Expression of CD36 by Cytokines: The Effect of Phorbol Myristate Acetate.” She will attend Cornell University Medical College.

Kira Manusis, Brooklyn
Brooklyn College

Kira Manusis was also born in the former Soviet Union, where becoming a physician was difficult for Jewish students. She did, however, train passionately from the age of six to join the state gymnastics team. Her family came to the United States in 1989 so that she could fulfill her dream of becoming a physician. But her parents lacked the language and professional skills to find jobs, and at age 14 she temporarily became the family’s only breadwinner. Although her father found work, he lost his job just as she started college and Kira withdrew to work in a supermarket 12 hours a day. When she became depressed and ill after seven months, her parents decided to move in with relatives so that she could continue her education and she returned to Brooklyn College. Fortunately her family’s financial security does not depend on her anymore.

Certified in Emergency Care, Kira joined the Brooklyn College Emergency Medical Squad as an Emergency Medical Technician. She also served as a biology tutor in Brooklyn College’s Learning Center and taught children in a gymnastics club she formed at the Jewish Community Center.

A Howard Hughes Undergraduate Research Scholar, she has conducted independent research on the processes of regeneration and metamorphosis in the biology laboratory of Professor Martin Schreibman. Her research paper is entitled “Molecular and Hormonal Mechanisms Controlling Anal Fin (Gonopodium) Development and Regeneration.” She will attend New York University School of Medicine.

Rhondalyn C. McLean, Manhattan
City College

Rhondalyn C. McLean has always lived in Harlem. She says she knows what it means to live without health care and to be skeptical of the authority of medical personnel who seem to be outsiders. She feels a sense of urgency when considering the needs of underserved communities and sees the need to consider the entire social context of a person’s life and illness. Her plan is to be a physician who advocates for changes in health care policies and provides leadership and expertise in the resolution of interconnected medical and social issues.

A graduate of Bronx High School of Science, Rhondalyn has participated in the Minority Access to Research Careers Program. She has also served as a tutor and exam review leader in premedical studies, played on and managed the Women’s Varsity Basketball team, and been a member of a Search Committee for the college’s Neuroscience Professor. Among her honors is a Vision Research Travel Fellowship this year.

Working on vision research with Biology Professor Josh Wallman, Rhondalyn entitled her research paper ” Do Eyes Need Sharp Images For Their Growth To Compensate For Spectacle-Lens Defocus?” She will medical school at the University of California, San Francisco.

Catherine U. Okonji, Manhattan
City College

Catherine U. Okonji has had an international education in New York, London, and Nigeria as the daughter of a Nigerian diplomat. Ill with asthma as a child, she spent time in many hospitals.

During one of her stays in Nigeria ten years ago, she escorted her aunt to work at a hospital for young children and found it so thrilling that she worked there for several months, dispensing food and medicine to children suffering from diseases that were almost non-existent in the United States. It was an experience that strengthened her resolve to be a physician.

Due to political unrest in Nigeria, she decided to continue her education at City College. She participated in a summer research program at the University of Minnesota. At CCNY she was selected to become a Minority Access to Research Careers (MARC) scholar. Working with Dr. Patricia Broderick, she studied the effects of drugs such as cocaine and clozapine on the release of neurotransmitters. She was invited to present her research at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) NIGMS Minority Programs Research Symposium and at the Society for Neuroscience.

Catherine and Professor Broderick were awarded the 1996 City College Mentoring Award. In addition she tutors biology and organic chemistry and helps choreograph routines for her dance troupe, Les Gazelles Africaines, sings in the City College Choir, and is student-advisor to the Nigerian Students Association.

Her research paper is titled “The Discovery of Long Term Serotinergic Components of Clozapine, a D4 Therapy for Schizophrenia: A Therapy for Cocaine Addition?” She will attend Baylor College of Medicine.

Eve Sisser, Rego Park
Queens College

Eve Sisser, like many others, first admired doctors because of their kindness when she was sick as a small child. A gifted high school biology teacher introduced her to the challenge and beauty of science. Her achievements in science courses at Queens College, which she entered at age 16, and her involvement in research increased her desire to become a doctor. Eve worked for three years in a genetics lab at the college under Professor Roberta Koepfer investigating the invasion of the island of Guadeloupe by an Asian fruit fly and the parasitic wasps that attack them. In addition, she has worked with Dr. Diana Casper in her neurosurgery lab at Einstein Medical School’s Montefiore Hospital on the role of growth factors in development, disease, and aging.

An anthropology major with a minor in biology, she received the Most Promising Student in Anthropology Award, and was named a Howard Hughes Summer Research Fellow, among her other honors. Her research paper is on “Ecological and Immunological Factors in the Invasion of a Tropical Island by Drosophila malerkotliana.” She will attend SUNY Buffalo School of Medicine.

David I. Sternberg, Staten Island
Brooklyn College

David I. Sternberg has, since he was a child, visualized medical research as a war between the good guys–the researchers–and the bad guys–infectious diseases. Where most people would shrink at the thought of facing new deadly diseases such as Ebola and Hanta, he is ready to take up his microscope and engage in battle. At Brooklyn College he has been working in biology and biochemistry labs since his freshman year. In addition, he has participated in both the Hoffman-LaRoche and Einstein Medical School Summer Research Programs. In Professor Margaret Kielian’s virology lab at Einstein, he studied virus entry and exit from cells. As a member of the Howard Hughes Research Participation Program, he worked in Biology Professor R.H. Gavin’s lab and demonstrated that an antibody cross-reacts with a nuclear antigen. His research with Chemistry Professor Daniel C. Vellom resulted in his research paper on “Novel Reaction and Kinetics of Acetylcholinesterase and the Fluorescent Label Pyrenebutylmethylphosphonofluoridate.”

A young man with many interests, David has been President of the Howard Hughes Undergraduate Society, an art history tutor at Brooklyn College’s Learning Center, a volunteer at SUNY Health Science Center at Brooklyn, and an avid fisherman, amateur astronomer, amateur bird trainer, and holder of a karate blue belt. He will attend New York University Medical School.

Colette Monique Knight, Bronx
City College

Colette Monique Knight came to the United States from Antigua in 1991 to pursue a career in science. Her participation in the City College Scholars program and the Minority Access to Research Careers program introduced her to scientific research. In the City College Summer Research Scholars Program, working with Dr. Peter Cherry of the CUNY Medical School, she investigated the effects of nitric acid on prostaglandins. Last year she began work on a biochemistry and molecular biology research project in Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry C.S. Russell’s lab. In her work she investigated various possibilities for enhancing the accumulation of aminolevulinic acid (ALA), the first stable precursor in the heme biosynthetic pathway in E. coli. Her research became more significant, she said, when the potential clinical applications of ALA as a visualization agent and topical treatment for some types of tumors was revealed. The title of her research paper is “Characterization of E. Coli Strains Which Overexpress hemA.”

A volunteer at New York Hospital, and as a tutor for Disabled Student Services, Colette was the Vice President of the City College Chapter of the Golden Key National Honor Society and the student advisor for the City College Student Chapter of the American Chemical Society. In addition to her many honors in chemistry, she received the E.Y. “Yip” Harburg Award for service to the college and to the community. She will attend Harvard Medical School.

1997 Honorary Salk Scholars

Antonia Essallenne, Kew Gardens
Hunter College

Antonia Essallenne started college in 1991 as a Medical Lab Science major but had to drop out for a while when her father was hospitalized. When she returned, she was once more an A student, despite having to work as an aerobics instructor to put herself through college. A Minority Access to Research Careers (MARC) Scholar, she took part in a summer program at NIH in the Medicinal Chemistry Laboratory where scientists were investigating the relatively new non-opioid sigma receptor. Her task was to synthesize fluorescent, biotinylated, and electrophillic programs in order to visualize and isolate the receptor. She presented her work at the NIH Summer Students Research Symposium and at the MARC/MBRS Symposium held in Washington. She also received a summer research fellowship to Tufts University. In addition, as an independent study student, she worked at NYU on melanoma vaccine experiments.

Impressed with her talents, the Hunter MARC Program hired her this spring as a Group Learning Coordinator, a newly funded position designed to improve retention in entry-level science courses. Antonica organized and conducted Science Anxiety Clinics and Freshman Science Orientation sessions. She also organized and ran a regional meeting to introduce college and high school students to minority scientists. Teaching is something she has done since she was a teenager when she taught high school students CPR, First Aid and Sports Medicine. As a college freshman, she worked for the Board of Education in a peer counseling program called SPARK. She was an intern at the Rusk Institute for Rehabilitation, where she used recreation therapy to work with young people suffering from disease and injuries. Her research interest lies in drug design based on compounds found in nature. The title of her research paper is “Complement-Mediated Cytolysis Induced by B16 Melanoma Vaccine.” She will attend the University of Rochester Medical School.

Rohini Bhat, Flushing
Queens College

Rohini Bhat has long been keenly interested in being both a physician and a medical researcher, influenced by an uncle who is a doctor and an aunt who died a painful death because of breast cancer, despite all the treatment available. Born in India, she came here five years ago and graduated as valedictorian of her high school class. She was named a Queens College Scholar and served as a tutor for SEEK students and as general chemistry workshop leader. She volunteered in the emergency room at New York Hospital Medical Center of Queens and experienced what a medical career would demand. Her research at Queens College included working on a collaborative effort in the laboratories of Biology Professors Jared Rifkin and Harold Magazine on the effects of the neuropeptide, Emdothelin-1, on cell migration and adhesion.

Last summer Rohini participated in a National Science Foundation Research Experiences for Undergraduates program at the University of Missouri Research Reactor. Chosen as a member of the Radiopharmaceutical Research Group, which is at the forefront of international research efforts in the development of radionuclide therapies for malignancies, rheumatoid arthritis and other diseases, Rohini’s project included evaluations of two new therapeutic concepts: a new type of radioactive stent for cardiovascular applications, and the incorporation of therapeutic radionuclides into fullerenes for delivery to target tissues.

She submitted two research papers. They are on “Radioactive Stent Wires Used in Coronary Angioplasty” and “Buckminster Fullerenes as Carriers of Radioisotopes.” She will begin her M.D./Ph.D studies at the University of Connecticut Health Center.

Mamie Caton, Manhattan
Hunter College

Mamie Caton took a circuitous route to medicine, but it was a route of self-discovery. She came to New York from Virginia in 1978 to pursue a career in acting and formed an acting company with six other actors to perform new plays. To augment her acting classes, she began to study body movement and fitness, which led eventually to the position of Wellness Director at the YMCA. Working with senior citizens , she became interested in geriatric illness and ailments and wanted to play a more direct part in the field of health.

She enrolled in a physical therapy program at Hunter and realized to her surprise that she loved science. After switching to a major in biology, Mamie was selected to participate in the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Research program at Hunter College. Named a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Scholar, she worked in Professor of Biological Sciences Ann Henderson’s laboratory at Hunter. Their project was designed to identify whether electromagnetic fields in the environmental range could alter the expression of genes that have been associated with cancer. The next logical step, she says, is a career as a physician. Her research paper is on Post-Translational Modifications of the FOS Protein. She will attend medical school at SUNY Health Science Center in Brooklyn.

Jennifer Duchon, Manhattan
City College

Jennifer Duchon also took an unusual route to a medical career. She dreamed of becoming a ballet dancer and won a scholarship to a large ballet school in New York City. She danced until injuries forced her to stop. Needing to pursue another career, she earned her New York State license in massage therapy and ran her own practice, working with people with chronic injuries, pain and chronic illnesses. She realized that she wanted to learn more about the body and how it can go wrong, so she enrolled as a pre-med student. Jennifer did research on vision chemistry in Chemistry and Biochemistry Professor Valeria Balogh-Nair’s laboratory and worked on a second NIH-supported project on AIDS. She was also the primary leader in the Organic Chemistry Workshop and took part in the Bridge-to-Organic/General Chemistry Program. Her research paper is titled “Synthesis of Retinal Analogs.&77quot; She will attend McGill University Faculty of Medicine in Montreal.

Elissa Rubin, Brooklyn
Brooklyn College

Elissa Rubin has majored in psychology as part of the College’s BA/MD program. Two incidents made her determined to be a doctor. The first was observing a successful emergency cesarean section operation during her internship at SUNY-Brooklyn Medical School. The second was a terrible car accident in which she and her friends were involved. One friend died of the burns suffered in the accident and she was unable to help him. At Brooklyn College, though not a biology major, she dedicates many hours to biology research. In Biology Professor Dan Eshel’s laboratory, she established DNA sequence, and studied molecular biology and yeast genetics. Elissa has been a leader in the American Medical Student Association, and has done peer tutoring in Chemistry at the College’s Learning Center. Among her honors and awards is a Howard Hughes Fellowship and a Buttonwood Foundation Grant. The title of her research paper is “A Novel Site-Directed Mutagenesis Method in Yeast.” She will attend SUNY Health Science Center at Brooklyn.

Fahd Ali, Bronx
Brooklyn College

Fahd Ali travels from the Bronx to take part in Brooklyn College’s BA/MD program, determined to become a caring physician. He also wants to be a medical scientist so he can help an entire population of patients at once. He participated in the Brooklyn College/Downstate Medical School Summer Seminar, where he wrote a paper on fetal experimentation. He volunteered to work afternoons and summers with Dr. Vadiraja V. Murthy who is Associate Clinical Professor of Pathology and Director of Special Chemistry Laboratories at Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University. They worked on developing new techniques to distinguish patients with liver disease from bone disease early on and they were able to classify liver disease patients into two distinct groups, depending on the distribution pattern of the liver isoenzymes present in the serum. The project was extended to study obstetrics patients and they were able to confirm pregnancy by a simple assay based on the detection of placental alkaline phospatase isoenzyme.

Most recently Fahd has worked with Dr. Murthy in an investigation of the alkaline phosphatase is enzyme found in the serum of HIV positive patients to detect HIV-1 infection in babies as young as two months. Mr. Ali’s research paper is a work accepted for publication by the Journal of Clinical Laboratory Analysis, completed under Professor Murthy’s direction. Its title is “Differentiation and Resolution of Erythrocyte and Muscle Adenylate Kinase Activities in Serum by Electrophoresis.” He will attend SUNY Health Science Center at Brooklyn.

Robert Maitta, Newark
City College

Robert W. Maitta came face to face with cancer when his grandmother was diagnosed with the illness when he was a child in Ecuador. Her stoicism during a 10-year struggle guided him towards medicine. He started at Hostos Community College and transferred to City College to pursue pre-medical studies. He earned his B.S. in 1992, working at everything from loading trucks to spending nights and weekends at a supermarket to support his studies and then went on to pursue his master’s degree in biology. Through programs such as MBRS, Robert has been able to pursue research interests, which include T cell development and the thymic factors influencing it. His experimental results were included in a recent publication in the Journal of Cellular Immunology. After graduating from City College, he joined the Jeanne B. Lambert Laboratory for Cancer Research of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine., working on the development of better chemotherapeutic agents.

For the past year he has worked as a science and biology teacher at De LaSalle Academy, teaching basic scientific concepts to mainly underprivileged, first-generation sixth through eighth graders. His wife has preceded him as a medical student, so he has no illusions about the hard work ahead of him. Mr. Maitta’s research paper is titled “Thymic Nurse Cels Induce the Proliferation of a Subset of Immature Thymocytes.” He has been accepted at Albert Einstein College of Medicine.