First, You Have Patience

A Salk Award solidified a student’s circuitous road to medical school.

Christopher Navas grew up in a single-parent home, the youngest of three children. His mother was on welfare. When she found work, it was for minimal pay. He never met his father, who left while his mother was still pregnant with him.

Salk winner Christopher Navas in Queens College neuroscience lab, where he discovered that the subject fascinated him.

To help support his family, Navas never balked at taking any jobs that came his way. He worked as a cashier at a supermarket and a video store. He stocked supplies and was a service mechanic for a refrigeration company. He became a secretary at a boiler manufacturing company for which he later delivered 400-pound steel boiler parts, supervised their assemblage and worked his way up to become the company’s quality control manager.

Going to medical school never crossed his mind.

On May 16, however, Navas, 30, was among eight pre-med CUNY students who were awarded Jonas E. Salk Scholarships to study in the medical field this year. A neuroscience major who graduated with honors from Queens College in May, Navas will enter Dartmouth Medical School this summer.

“To be a Salk Scholar is one of the most prestigious awards bestowed upon a graduate of The City University of New York,” Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Alexandra W. Logue said at the awards ceremony.

Keynote speaker Dr. Arnold Melman — a professor at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, graduate of City College and 1962 Salk Award winner – told the 2012 honorees: “It is my hope that the drive and intelligence you demonstrated to be here today will continue as you do your best to help mankind.”

Salk Scholarships recognize CUNY students who are judged likely to make significant contributions to medicine and research. The awards were established in honor of Dr. Jonas E. Salk soon after he developed the polio vaccine in 1955 — 21 years after he graduated from City College. He turned down a ticker tape parade in honor of his discovery, asking that the money be used instead for scholarships. Each Salk Scholar receives a stipend of $8,000 over three or four years to help defray the costs of medical school.

“Hard work definitely pays off,” Navas said in an interview. “Ten years ago, working in a factory, I didn’t think I would become a doctor.”

Medicine found him, he said. But it came in a long and arduous way. “We grew up really poor,” said Navas, who was born in Flushing, moved with his family a half dozen times in Queens, then to Great Neck, Long Island, where he still lives.

“Mom was on welfare up until I was a teenager. With three kids it was difficult for her,” Navas said. He dropped out of school to do various jobs, always starting at the bottom. But he passed the High School Equivalency test.

He talked with college students, and “the older guys I worked with were telling me to go back to school. I started taking everybody’s advice.”

Navas earned an associate degree in liberal arts from Nassau Community College in 2005. “I worked full time and went to school full time, but I still didn’t know what I wanted to do.”

The answer came from his sister, Jessica Peña, who was completing a master’s degree at Queens College. She suggested he enroll there and become a gym teacher or go into physical therapy.

He started taking classes for an exercise science major but after two semesters switched to psychology and health sciences. One of the required psychology courses was behavioral neuroscience.

Guiseppe Cataldo, a graduate student who was his teacher, told him about research conducted on the campus. His interest sparked, Navas toured the physics and psychology research facilities. “Right then and there I said I want to do some research; how do I get involved?”

He was admitted to the competitive Neuroscience Major and joined associate professor of psychology Susan Croll’s laboratory, where he researched the role of the inflammatory cytokine interleukin-1 in behavior. “I loved it. I would read sections of the textbook they didn’t even assign. That’s how much it fascinated me,” Navas said.

While pursuing his neuroscience studies, Navas continued to work for the boiler company. He also became an Emergency Medical Technician, volunteering in the ER at North Shore University Hospital and Long Island Jewish Medical Center, and worked as a nurse extender at St. Francis Hospital drawing blood, cleaning bedpans and giving bedbaths.

“If I see an opportunity, I jump on it,” Navas said. “If I’m given advice, I always listen. I fooled around with the idea [medicine] but felt it was out of my reach. But when I switched to neuroscience …. I was surrounded by kids who were going into the medical field to be doctors, so I started taking classes with them. Professor Croll; Vali Cook, a health professions advisor …. they gave me the confidence that I could do it.”

Navas presented work on preclinical dementia studies at the Society for Neuroscience’s 2010 convention in San Diego, finished his classes that August and applied to 30 medical schools.

When he learned he won a Salk Award, “I almost teared up,” Navas said. “I feel honored.” The scholarship “will definitely help,” he added.

He hasn’t decided on a specialty. “I’m going with an open mind.” But he has a commitment. “I feel patient education is a big key.” He will be a doctor who “sits down and talks to the patient. That’s the kind of doctor I want to be.”

As for his alma mater, “Queens College changed my life,” Navas said. “When I went in there I was going to be a gym teacher. I came out [prepared to be] a doctor…. I was lost for a while. Now every day I grow.”

His mentor, Susan Croll, said: “Chris has been a joy to have in my laboratory. He’s a real self-starter, having proposed his first independent project just weeks after starting in my lab. He was one of only a small group of undergraduates through the years to make the trip to the annual Society for Neuroscience conference to present his work. In addition, he’s really a great person — generous, kind and collegial. I fully expect Chris to make real contributions both to biomedical science and to those patients fortunate enough to receive his care.” Medicine “finding him” was a boon to medicine and to CUNY, Croll added.

His mother, Brianne Navas, and his fiancé, Lauren Talesnick — who did her undergraduate work at Queens College and is a physician’s assistant — proudly watched Navas receive his Salk Award.