Supporting Bronx-Based Graduate Students on Their Path to Biomedical Career Success

Three scientists will be the first to earn M.S. degrees in biological sciences as part of the Einstein Discover Research Program

On the cusp of graduating with a Master of Science degree, Marilyn Vallejo Alvarez has already contributed to genetic research at the National Cancer Institute-designated Montefiore Einstein Comprehensive Cancer Center (MECCC). She is abuzz with possibilities for a future she had not imagined a couple of years ago.

“Joining this program at a leading research institution has exposed me to so many different avenues of  study,” Ms. Vallejo Alvarez says. “I am excited about where they can take me.”

Ms. Vallejo Alvarez, along with Akua Mensah and Jackriel Pina Morales, will soon become the first three graduates of the Einstein Discover Research Program, which was launched one year ago in collaboration with Lehman College of the City University of New York (CUNY). The Discover program gives aspiring Bronx-based scientists access to labs and faculty researchers at Einstein as they work toward an M.S. in biology granted by CUNY, which will make students more competitive as they apply to medical and graduate schools.

Funded by MECCC and the  Harold and Muriel Block Institute for Clinical and Translational Research at Einstein and Montefiore (ICTR), Einstein’s Discover Research Program launched in January 2023 to help provide support to local students and diversify the biomedical science workforce. Nearly 90% of Lehman College students are from groups historically underrepresented in science and medicine. “Providing an opportunity for these talented students not only benefits them, but also benefits the future of science,” says Zoe Tsagaris, M.S., OTR/L, director of clinical research resources at the ICTR. The program is only one of several pathway programs and diversity initiatives supported by MECCC, the ICTR, and Montefiore Einstein as a whole.

From left: Kristina Ames, Ph.D., Jackriel Pina Morales, Marilyn Vallejo Alvarez, Akua Mensah, and Zoe Tsagaris, M.S., OTR/L.
From left: Kristina Ames, Ph.D., Jackriel Pina Morales, Marilyn Vallejo Alvarez, Akua Mensah, and Zoe Tsagaris, M.S., OTR/L.

Hands-on Science

Einstein Discover Research is an immersive program where—often for the first time—students integrate the information they’ve learned into planning and conducting original research, says Kristina Ames, Ph.D., assistant director for cancer research training and education coordination at MECCC, which administers the program, and an assistant professor of oncology at Einstein. “It’s a big shift, mentally, going from the classroom to the lab,” she says, “but over time, all the students have excelled.”

Ms. Vallejo Alvarez agrees: “It’s totally different to be able to learn in a lab instead of reading about an experiment,” she says. “To be able to take what I have learned in class and put it into practice with my own hands helps me understand the science.”

Says Ms. Tsagaris: "We bring these students into the real-world environment of scientific research. They learn not only the technical aspects of conducting basic science, but also all-important soft skills such as how to communicate professionally and work productively with colleagues and managers.”

Providing an opportunity for these talented students not only benefits them, but also benefits the future of science.

Zoe Tsagaris, director of clinical research resources at the ICTR

Learning How to Be a Science Professional

In addition to spending 15 months conducting research in an Einstein laboratory, Discover Research students attend scientific seminars and other educational activities on the Einstein campus and meet for twice-weekly workshops with Dr. Ames and Ms. Tsagaris. At the workshops, students receive science instruction and guidance on areas such as thesis development, written communication, and presentation skills.

“Basically, they learn how to be a science professional,” says Dr. Ames. The dual nature of the program is key to its success, adds Kristy Stengel, Ph.D., assistant professor of cell biology at Einstein, a member of MECCC’s Stem Cell & Cancer Biology Research (SCCB) Program, and a mentor to Ms. Morales. “Dr. Ames and Ms. Tsagaris specialize in the educational side of things, whereas we bring the expertise in experimentation, data generation, and interpretation. It has been incredibly rewarding to see the students bloom.”

In November the students attended the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minoritized Scientists in Phoenix, Ariz., which allowed them to network and present their work.

The new cohort of Discover students, who began their research in January, are: Isabella Brew, in the lab of Teresa DiLorenzo, Ph.D., professor of microbiology & immunology and of medicine and the Diane Belfer, Cypres & Endelson Families Faculty Scholar in Diabetes Research; Gracia Bualuti, in the lab of Hayley McDaid, Ph.D., associate professor of oncology, of medicine, and of molecular pharmacology; and Wilber Rafael Ciprian, in the lab of Derek Huffman, Ph.D., professor of molecular pharmacology and of medicine and the Lotti and Bernard Benson Faculty Scholar in Alzheimer's Disease.

We caught up with the three soon-to-be Discover Research Program graduates and their Einstein mentors to talk about their discoveries and the impact the program has had on them.

Marilyn Vallejo Alvarez: Cystic Fibrosis and Lung Cancer
Mentor: Lindsay LaFave, Ph.D.

Ms. Vallejo Alvarez says she didn’t know much about how the research environment functioned when she entered the graduate biology program at Lehman. “But I hadn’t really been exposed to it,” she says. When her Lehman advisors urged her to apply for the Einstein Discover Research Program, she “decided to go for it,” she says. “I saw it as a chance to grow personally and professionally.”

Marilyn Vallejo Alvarez
Marilyn Vallejo Alvarez

She had worked in a lab as an undergraduate student, “but it was usually group work. The difference at Einstein is that everything is done individually. You have to be able to learn and be confident in what you know in order to push through the different experiments.”

When it came time to run the experiments, she says “everything was new to me. Doing cell culture, for example, is pretty simple and most scientists do it. But I'd never done one before. So every step, from changing media to counting cells and replating them, was a learning experience. Thankfully, I had the support of my lab to guide me through these challenges.”

She also ran experiments including qPCR (quantitative polymerase chain reaction) to measure gene expression, Western blots to quantify proteins in samples of tissue, and ATAC-seq (assay for transposase-accessible chromatin with sequencing) to measure DNA packaging in the nucleus.

Under the guidance of Dr. LaFave, an assistant professor of cell biology at Einstein and a member of the SCCB Program at MECCC, Ms. Vallejo Alvarez has spent the past year researching a gene implicated in the development of lung cancer. The graduate student decided to take on a medical mystery: Why the activity of the CFTR gene, best known for its role in causing cystic fibrosis, drops off in patients with late-stage lung cancer.

“What we’ve found is that, overall, more and more CFTR gene expression is lost as lung cancer progresses,” she says. However, CFTR acts differently depending on the specific type of cancer cell, she discovered. A treatment may degrade the gene in one cell line, for example, and enhance it in another. “Eventually the goal is to understand how the protein works so that we can develop therapies that target it,” she says.

Students often start off working on a piece of someone else’s project, says Dr. LaFave. “But Marilyn pioneered her own project. She discovered that the way cells are cultured in a dish can affect CFTR activity and therefore the outcome of experiments,” says Dr. LaFave. “That finding is key to studying this gene in the right way.”

Akua Mensah: Cerebral Malaria
Mentor: Johanna Daily, M.D., M.S.

Ms. Mensah recalls feeling nervous starting out as a Discover Research student. “There was fear but also interest and a desire to contribute — all those feelings intertwined,” she says. The support she found eased her initial jitters. “I was mentored by everyone, not just by people in my lab,” she says.

Akua Mensah
Akua Mensah

“The experience has been a win-win,” says Dr. Daily, her mentor and a professor of medicine and of microbiology & immunology at Einstein, a member of the ICTR, and an infectious disease physician at Montefiore.

Ms. Mensah’s research focus was malaria, a parasitic disease spread by mosquitoes, which is responsible for 40% of hospital outpatient visits in Ghana, where Ms. Mensah lived until she was 14. “Malaria affected me as well as many of my friends and family,” she says. She says she was excited to work with Dr. Daily on cerebral malaria, a rare complication of the disease that can cause seizures, coma, brain damage, and even death.

Dr. Daily’s lab had identified pipecolic acid, an amino acid made by the malaria-causing parasite, as the potential culprit for the neurological symptoms. Using techniques she learned in the lab, Ms. Mensah tagged the cellular pathway for creating pipecolic acid with a carbon label precursor molecule. Sure enough, infected red blood cells had a carbon label of pipecolic acid while the uninfected cells did not.

“That means that the parasite responsible for cerebral malaria is producing pipecolic acid,” says Ms. Mensah. “That’s a significant result.” She received a Young Investigator Award from the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene after presenting her research at the group’s annual conference.

Over the course of the program, Ms. Mensah noticed a new emotion: hope. She found herself propelled by the excitement of discovery and closing in on a finding that could change lives. “This research, we’re going to do something great with it,” she says.

Jacky Morales: Blood Cancer
Mentor: Kristy Stengel, Ph.D.

Ms. Morales recalls feeling intimidated when she began the Discover Research Program, especially since she had arrived in the Bronx just four years ago from Puerto Rico, and English is her second language. “I was very self-conscious, especially talking science,” says Ms. Morales. “But presenting and practicing with my lab and in workshops made me much stronger and more confident.”

Jacky Morales
Jacky Morales

In the lab of Dr. Stengel , Ms. Morales is researching a class of proteins called transcription factors that appear abnormal, or mutated, in cancer patients.

Ideally, scientists would compare what happens to cells with and without those mutated proteins. But historically that’s been difficult, Dr. Stengel says, because the transcription factors act fast, but the technology to shut them down is very slow. Ms. Morales is working with a new technology that compresses the timeline for disrupting transcription factors from days to minutes.

She’s using that new technique to study a transcription factor called RUNX1. Mutations that impede RUNX1 are linked to an inherited blood clotting disorder and an increased risk of leukemia and other blood cancers. She’s been able to show that eliminating RUNX1 leads to DNA damage inside cells.

“I’ve been engineering a cell line to continue studying RUNX1 and whether it also interacts with proteins involved in DNA repair,” says Ms. Morales. During her time in the Discover Research program, she received a $5,000 grant from the Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation for Childhood Cancer. She has also presented her research at conferences, Lehman College, and the Bronx Zoo.

Next Steps for the Young Scientists

All three Discover Research graduate students have big plans for the future. Ms. Mensah has wanted to be a family medicine physician since she shadowed a general practitioner during a high-school internship at Montefiore Medical Center. She has offers from several medical schools and is still deciding on which one she’ll accept. Ms. Mensah says that she’s graduating from the Discover Research Program with a profound appreciation for the role research plays in helping patients. “This is healthcare — people making discoveries and developing therapies that others use in the clinic,” she says. “We all need each other.”

Ms. Morales is also set on medical school, and she plans to pursue an M.D./Ph.D. to become a physician-scientist. In the meantime, she will be staying on as a research technician in Dr. Stengel’s lab as she prepares for the next phase of her education. “I feel like I would be missing a part of myself if I left research,” she says. “It brings happiness to my heart to potentially not only treat patients in the exam room but also contribute to the therapies that help them have long, healthy lives.”

As for Ms. Vallejo Alvarez, she says she is drawing on inspiration from her father's journey. He had to leave medical school in Ecuador when the family immigrated to the United States, but he instilled in her a deep respect for the medical profession, and she is considering applying to M.D./Ph.D. programs. Meanwhile, she has accepted Dr. LaFave’s offer of continuing in her lab as a research assistant for the upcoming academic year.

“I never thought that I’d be in this position, but I love where I am,” says Ms.Vallejo Alvarez. Some days are hard, she says, but the challenge and variety keep her on her toes. “If everything was smooth sailing, it would be a boring career,” she says. “And who wants that?”