Obstacles and Perseverance — Tale of Salk Awards’ Keynoter

  Angela Diaz's picture
Dr. Angela Diaz
Angela Diaz came to the U.S. from the Dominican Republic when she was 15 to be with her mother. She entered high school and was put in an ESL class with younger students “who spoke all different languages. But we had a wonderful teacher who found creative ways to get us to communicate with each other. Because I was good at it, I was allowed into a math class to study algebra. I could understand the signs and symbols, if not the language, and did well. But when I went to take the Regents exam I couldn’t understand the directions, and I flunked it.”

After squeezing in an algebra class on her lunch hour, she passed it on her second try, but then, much perplexing her teachers, she became a drop-out in her senior year of high school. They kept calling her, offering help even asking if she was pregnant. Diaz very indignantly responded, “No, I haven’t even had sex!” Finally they struck a bargain with her: if she came back and took a few more courses, she would be able to graduate with her class. So she did.

But her mother did not approve of the idea of going away to college. In their culture girls who are virgins must live with their family, she insisted. “I didn’t know what to do. My mother didn’t speak English, and I had no one to advise me.” Then Diaz found City College, just a few blocks from their home.

One day, a year later, she saw a sign for Columbia University and walked in. “I had always wanted to be a doctor, so I asked what I had to do to get into medical school. I was told I had to take this course and that course, and I said I’ve already taken those courses at City College. Can I apply? So the registrar handed me an application and I asked her for a pen and filled it out right there. She asked me for the $15 application fee—this was in 1977, remember—which I didn’t have! Still, I was called back for an interview and I got in. It wasn’t until I was in my second year in medical school that something clicked. I became centered. I knew where I was going—and why.”

Such was the tale of perseverance Diaz told to a riveted audience as keynote speaker for this year’s Jonas E. Salk Awards ceremony, and the happy ending to her story has been unfolding ever since.

She never looked back, despite marriage and the birth of three children by the time she finished medical school and her residency. She completed her post-doctoral training at Mount Sinai School of Medicine and is now Dr. Angela Diaz, M.D., M.P.H., director of the Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center, Crystal Professor of Pediatrics at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, and one of New York magazine’s “Best Doctors in New York.” The New York State Department of Health named the Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center a Center for Excellence in Adolescent Health in 2000. Her many honors fill pages.

Diaz told the newest Salk Scholars and their proud families, “I love what I do. I love working with adolescents. Although I am trained as a pediatrician, this is the population that I most love working with. There isn’t a day in my life when I don’t think I am in the perfect profession.”

She has also worked with international health projects in Asia, Central and South America, the Caribbean, Europe and Africa, and is deeply involved in health advocacy and policy in the U.S. In 1994 she was selected as one of 17 White House Fellows from nearly 1,300 applicants and was assigned by the Department of Interior to assess health care delivery in the U.S. Pacific Islands and Virgin Islands.

And Diaz has not ceased being a student. Unwilling to rest on her newly-earned Harvard M.P.H. laurels, she is now working toward a Ph.D. in epidemiology at Columbia.

The Salk Scholarships are the legacy of the developer of the polio vaccine nearly half a century ago. Dr. Salk, a graduate of City College, turned down a ticker tape parade in honor of his discovery, and asked instead that the money be used for scholarships. The city provided initial funding for the Salk Scholarships in 1955. The endowment now provides a stipend of $6,000 per scholar for medical school.

The Salk Scholars were selected by a panel of distinguished physicians, all Salk Scholar alumni, based on the quality of the scientific research conducted by the students, who have glowing recommendations by professors and mentors. The eight winners and five honorary scholars were recognized for their research in biochemistry, genetics, environmental toxins, brain development, physics, immunology and other fields.

Among this year’s Salk Scholars is Chiyedza Small, whose life-long love of science developed into an interest in scientific research after her freshman year at City College, when she spent the summer studying immunoglobulin class switching in a human monoclonal B-cell line at Cornell University Medical School. She continued her interest in immunity in the City College laboratory of Professor Shubha Govind, where she studied hema-topoiesis and cellular immune reactions in the fruitfly. Her collaboration with a graduate student resulted in a refereed publication in 2002 in BioTechniques. She will attend Mount Sinai School of Medicine for a Ph.D. in immunology.

Kanwal Farouki, another Salk Scholar, was an independent lead person in a complex research project on the role of p53, a tumor repressor cell, in Professor Carol Wood Moore’s microbiology lab at City College. Because cancerous cells often arise after their DNA has undergone damage, DNA damage has become a signal for p53 activation. Her research has resulted in academic presentations and an up-coming publication. She will attend New York Medical College.

Other Salk Scholarship winners, their colleges, and the medical schools they will attend include: Mihail Rivlin (Hunter), Albert Einstein College of Medicine; Susan Bard (Brooklyn), SUNY Downstate Medical Center; Jeanne Amuta (Hunter), Albert Einstein College of Medicine; Frank Akwaa (Hunter), University of Rochester Medical School; Amir Estephan (Staten Island), SUNY Downstate; and Ronald Charles (City), Weill Medical College of Cornell University.

The honorary Salk Scholars are: Phyllis Eze (City), SUNY Downstate; Kwasi Manu (Hunter), SUNY Downstate; Larissa Orloff (Queens), University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine; Shella Saint Fleur (Brooklyn), N.Y.U. School of Medicine; and Rachna Sondhi (Staten Island), SUNY Downstate.


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