Outstanding CUNY Graduates Win Prestigious Salk Awards for Medical Studies

From left to right: Christopher Reid, Olayinka Oladipupo, Anika Nabila, Marisol Cortes, Ma Su Su Aung, Larisa Shagabayeva, Violeta Contreras Ramirez, Keegan R. Fernandez

One – a former Army medic who lost his father on 9/11 – saved a severely injured fellow medic in Afghanistan. Others were inspired to pursue studies in medicine and research when stroke, diabetes and infection struck close to home. All but one are immigrants, from countries including Bangladesh, Kuwait, Mexico, Myanmar, Nigeria and Russia.

These are the eight winners of the City University of New York’s prestigious 2017 Jonas E. Salk Scholarships for the study of medicine and biomedical sciences. The award recognizes the winners for their outstanding scholarship and research in fields including neuroscience and molecular biology. The awards, to be presented May 10 at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, provide $8,000 to each student to defray the cost of their medical and graduate studies.

Chancellor James B. Milliken said, “We are extraordinarily proud of these remarkable young scientists for their commitment to scholarship, to healing and to service.  They exemplify the quality and reach of a CUNY education, as well as the legacy of Dr. Jonas Salk, which continues today at CUNY and throughout the world.”

This year’s Salk Scholars include one from Baruch College, four from City College, one from the College of Staten Island, one from Hunter College and one from York College. They are headed to prestigious schools, including the Harvard Medical School, Yale School of Medicine, Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, Weill Cornell Graduate School of Medical Sciences, SUNY Upstate Medical University, Creighton University School of Medicine, and Campbell University’s Jerry M. Wallace School of Osteopathic Medicine.

The Salk awards recognize the high ability and scholarship of CUNY baccalaureate candidates and recent CUNY graduates who plan careers in medicine and the biological sciences, and who are judged as likely to make significant contributions to medicine and research. They are selected on the basis of original research papers undertaken with prominent CUNY scientist mentors.

Jonas Salk, a 1934 City College graduate, developed the polio vaccine in 1955. He turned down a ticker-tape parade that was offered to honor his discovery, requesting that New York City use the money for scholarships. The city provided initial funding for the Salk Scholarships in 1955.

The Salk endowment provides each winner with a stipend of $8,000, appropriated over three or four years. Salk Scholars also receive achievement citations and examination kits that include an otoscope and ophthalmoscope.

The awards will be presented by Executive Vice Chancellor and University Provost Vita C. Rabinowitz and Interim Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Chris Rosa. Dr. Sheryl Purrier, York College ’09, a 2009 Salk Scholar, graduate of Penn State College of Medicine and a Neonatal-Perinatal Fellow at New York University School of Medicine, will be the guest speaker.

The 2017 Jonas E. Salk Scholars are:

Ma Su Su Aung (Macaulay Honors College at Baruch College)

Creighton University School of Medicine.

Ma Su Su Aung arrived in New York City from Myanmar at 15 with the dream of becoming a doctor and one day returning home to help advance medical care in her country. A biology major with a minor in interdisciplinary studies and honors in New York City studies, she was inspired by her father’s efforts to advance his own career in nursing. Her goals were further solidified when her grandmother died in her early 60s from kidney failure related to untreated diabetes – an example of how health literacy could improve life expectancy for people in Myanmar. From her volunteer work at New York Presbyterian Hospital and biological research as a Baruch undergraduate, she looks forward to a career as a physician that will allow her to educate her patients and improve their quality of life.

Violeta Contreras Ramirez (City College)

Yale School of Medicine

Violeta Contreras Ramirez is a first-generation college student who emigrated from Mexico as an 8-year-old, whose first order of business was learning English. She discovered a passion for neuroscience during high school and pursued her interest as a biology and psychology major at City College, further shaping her academic experience through opportunities such as the Summer Research Trainee Program at Massachusetts General Hospital and the Summer Health Internship Program at Lehman College. She graduated as valedictorian of City College’s Class of 2015 and aspires to combine her research interests with her commitment to patient treatment.

Marisol Cortés (City College)

Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine

Biochemistry major Marisol Cortés started thinking about a career in medicine when her grandmother was hospitalized and she saw how doctors relied on both mathematics and cellular biology to determine a treatment plan. After relocating from California and working to save money to resume her college education, Cortés, originally from Mexico, found her way to City College and began working in a pharmacology and neuroscience lab at the Sophie Davis School of Medicine. She became involved with research related to Parkinson’s disease treatment, leading to funding from the Research Initiative for Scientific Enhancement and presentation of her work at the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students. She envisions a career in medical research that will help advance scientific understanding of neurodegeneration.

Keegan R. Fernandes (College of Staten Island)

Campbell University, Jerry M. Wallace School of Osteopathic Medicine

Keegan Fernandes had just started college when his father was killed in the 9/11 attacks – a loss that changed the trajectory of his life. He left school to take care of family responsibilities and eventually joined the military, where he served as a lead medic during deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. During these deployments Fernandes, whose family had immigrated to the United States from Kuwait, attended to local Iraqi nationals and insurgents, American soldiers, local Afghani nationals, members of the Afghani army and Afghani police. These experiences, along with the life-changing moment in Afghanistan when he saved a severely injured friend and fellow medic who had stepped on an explosive device, inspired his return to college and pursuit of a medical degree. With master’s degrees in Neuroscience and Developmental Disabilities as well as Biotechnology, Fernandes heads to medical school with research interests in epilepsy and Type II Diabetes, envisioning a career where he will be able to continue helping those without the resources to help themselves.

Anika Nabila (Macaulay Honors College at City College)

Weill Cornell Graduate School of Medical Sciences

A biology major with a minor in English, Bangladesh native Anika Nabila has always been drawn to the overlaps between art and science. Her interests in behavior and human emotion have shaped her as a scientist and as a writer, and watching people close to her suffer from clinical depression and schizophrenia has inspired her desire to better understand mental disorders. As an undergraduate she distinguished herself as a leader in the biology lab where she worked on research related to Alzheimer’s disease, and in the next phase of her academic career she will pursue a Ph.D. in neuroscience that will allow her to continue studying the genetic underpinnings of mental disorders.

Olayinka Oladipupo (York College)

SUNY Upstate Medical University

Growing up in a small town in Nigeria, Olayinka Oladipupo’s dream of becoming a doctor started when he broke his arm as a child, developed an infection after a delay in medical treatment, and was finally taken to a hospital where he encountered the possibilities of modern medicine. Since then, his sights have been set on a medical career, a long-shot pursuit that he was working and saving toward when he won a visa lottery to immigrate to the United States. As a biotechnology major, Oladipupo excelled at York College as a leader dedicated to serving his peers and finding ways to prioritize helping those in need. As a volunteer at St. John’s Episcopal Hospital, he has witnessed the compassion, professionalism and care that he hopes to emulate in his own career as a physician.

 Christopher Reid (City College)

Harvard Medical School

Christopher Reid has always been fascinated with the pursuit of knowledge about the human body and mind. As a biology major at City College, his academic performance and interests led to a research opportunity in a genetics lab and a prestigious Maximizing Access to Research Careers (MARC) fellowship, and he received an award in neuroscience at the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students (ABRCMS). In addition to his school work and a year-round job at Yonkers Raceway, he has juggled a range of commitments including community service projects and peer mentoring and tutoring roles. In the next phase of his academic career, he aims to continue studying neuroscience with hopes of utilizing multiple biological disciplines to understand and treat afflictions of the mind.

Larisa Shagabayeva (Hunter College)

Harvard Medical School

Larisa Shagabayeva’s interest in medicine was originally inspired by her mother, a licensed nurse who passed her evaluation exams with minimal English after emigrating from Russia. After participating in Mount Sinai Hospital’s summer Hospital Placement Program for high school students, she grew more fascinated with the science and service associated with a medical career. When she was 16, her father suffered a massive stroke that left him paralyzed. This turn of events brought difficult challenges for her family, but also cemented her dream of becoming a physician in order to serve patients and their families in their most trying moments. As a chemistry major at Hunter College, she held leadership roles with the Pre-Health Organization and Pre-Health Student Advisory Council. A recipient of an award in cancer biology from the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students, she looks forward to a career that will involve both patient treatment and research.