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Bridges program opens new doors for students

When Keisha Bonner enrolled at Westchester Community College, she didn’t know what she wanted to do with her life. She chose paralegal studies, hoping for job security. A career in scientific research never occurred to her until she joined the SUNY Upstate Bridges to the Baccalaureate program and spent the summer working with professors Karl Wilson and Anna Tan-Wilson at Binghamton University.

Bonner, in her last year at WCC, now plans to take more science courses and pursue her education further. She is one of 20 students, the largest group ever at Binghamton, who recently completed the fifth year of the Bridges summer program. Students came from Broome, Monroe, Onondaga, Rockland and Westchester community colleges for five weeks of faculty-guided research. The session ended with a poster session where they answered questions about their projects.

Funded by the National Institutes of Health, Bridges is designed to recruit under-represented students (African American, Hispanic American, Native American and natives of the U.S. Pacific Islands) to the sciences. BU guarantees admission to Bridges participants who have maintained a 2.7 grade-point average in science courses and overall.

According to Donald Blake, Harpur College’s associate dean for academic affairs and Bridges project director, BU has hosted some 86 students in the summer program. Thirty-six have transferred to four-year schools with 15 choosing Binghamton. Six have graduated from BU and eight are currently enrolled.

Blake said Binghamton is proud of its retention rate of Bridges students, but most proud of the students themselves who have been inspired to continue their education. “Perhaps most heartening,” said Blake, “are the many students who tell us that their participation in science research here during the summer affected their academic goals. In many of our students, we can see how the program is increasing their appetite for education and, in these instances, we know the program is working.”

Yahira Aponte, a second-year student at Broome Community College, is another Bridges alumna who has reconsidered her career plans after experiencing hands-on research. The former animal hospital assistant at the Jacksonville Zoo had planned to become a marine mammal specialist. Working with Nancy Stamp, graduate dean and professor of biological sciences, changed her mind.

Aponte compared two species of wasps and how much protein each used to build its nests. One species, Polistes dominulus, is not native. The other, Polistes fuscatus, is native. Aponte said learning about the non-native species will help scientists predict its environmental impact.

She hopes to transfer to BU in spring 2004 and major in biology. Her career plans are much more flexible now. “I don’t know what I’ll do,” she said. “It depends on whether my interests change, which they have already.”

Some students overcame great challenges to participate. Single parents Christina Closson-Rivera and Alia Chavies, students at Onondaga, said goodbye to their young children before heading to Binghamton. Working with associate professor of biological sciences Dennis McGee and graduate student Carrie LeSeur, MS ’03, Closson-Rivera induced different conditions in CACO-2 cells, or colon cancer cells, hoping to see what causes growth or tissue death. LeSeur and McGee will continue the research, with the goal of developing new cancer-fighting drugs.

McGee enjoyed having Closson-Rivera participate. “Christina was a very able and conscientious worker,” he said. “Her work helped solidify some of our ideas and will have an important role in helping us to decide where to go next with this project.”

For her part, Closson-Rivera feels fortunate to have participated. “I have built so much confidence,” she said.

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