Summer Time is a Prime Time to Learn Via Work

With medical school on the fall horizon, it would have been understandable if University graduates Diana Kachan and Will Mak had opted for a last-blast summer of mind-clearing R and R. Instead, they spent their summer vacation at the prestigious Salk Institute for Biological Research in La Jolla, Calif.

They weren't the only CUNY students and graduates to spend the summer striving for new heights in scientific research, public service or personal best. Other efforts included environmental research, internships and work on the world's pressing problems.


For CUNY graduate and medical student Will Mak, the opportunity to do research at the Salk Institute held personal significance.
Mak and Kachan, who received the University's coveted Jonas E. Salk Scholarship—established in 1955 at the request of the polio vaccine developer and City College alumnus in lieu of a ticker-tape parade—researched at the institute for eight weeks. As Salk Scholars they received stipends of $8,000 to defray medical school costs.

Kachan is a Belarus native whose medical interests first stirred when she volunteered at an orphanage for children handicapped by radiation from the Chernobyl blast. "[Biology] wasn't just about memorization and facts, but about real life," she recalled. She graduated from Baruch College with a CUNY Baccalaureate degree and enrolled in the M.D./Ph.D. program at University of Miami School of Medicine. She plans to pursue epidemiology and neurology.

At Salk, Kachan delved into theoretic neuroscience with Tatiana Sharpee, assistant professor in the Computational Neurobiology Laboratory, who studies how neurons "spike" to receive input, then signal other neurons, using data from retinal cells and the brain's visual cortex, along with computer code. Kachan quickly bridged her lack of theoretical neuroscience exposure and limited computer programming experience.

In a molecular biology lab at Salk, Mak, a graduate of the Macaulay Honors College at City College, investigated whether a section of genetic code is responsible for development of the brain region that controls movement, including vision and balance, in mice. He analyzed gene sequences that are published online, finding one that appeared similar to another gene known to affect motor function development. He cloned the new gene and inserted it into a virus, for introduction into developing brain cells in mice. Finally, he analyzed the cells to see where the gene "appeared" in the overall brainscape.

As he worked, Mak appeared slightly slouched, the result of congenital scoliosis, a curvature of his spine that restricts some of his movement and causes him daily pain. When he was in high school, he had his lower lumbar spine fused, he said. It was his traumatic medical experiences that led Mak to study at the New York College of Osteopathic Medicine. He wants to become an orthopedic surgeon, focusing on pediatrics. "Perhaps one day the discoveries in this lab will lead to cures for spinal deformities, or ways to prevent them from happening in the first place," Mak ventured.

While Mak and Kachan were at Salk, Shomari Brown and Olga Torres spent some time sifting through garbage. They were among six Lehman students, graduates and staff who helped the Friends of Hudson River Park Trust clean up Manhattan's Gansevoort Peninsula, seven acres of landfill south of 14th Street. The Trust plans to turn six acres into gardens and other attractions. The work, said Brown, made him "more aware of the importance of keeping public places clean, and I appreciate more where I come from."

Simon Mairzaheh of Baruch College was in Washington, D.C. this summer, as a Colin Powell Fellow interning in the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, office of Egypt and the Levant (Jordan, Syria, Lebanon). "It was amazing being steeped in our country's foreign policy arm, learning about its structure, and being a part of its function," said Mairzaheh, who helped organize a conference on the reconstruction of Palestinian refugee camps and drafted briefs as well as letters for officials including the President. "My time at the State Department was one of the paramount experiences of my life," Mairzaheh said. Next summer, he plans to intern at a U.S. embassy abroad.

Another Colin Powell Fellow, City College history major Ángela Pérez, interned in Bogota, Colombia with the nongovernmental Association of Internally Displaced Afro-Colombians. She registered new members, built a database and helped prepare a report on the erosion of Afro-Colombian women's rights that was to be presented to Colombia's Supreme Court. "I collected statements from these women, including a lot of personal information," she said. "They inspired me to learn and to help."

Climate change and global warming deeply concern New York City College of Technology student Adam Atia. Supported by a National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergraduates grant, Atia joined nine other CUNY students at the City College base of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Cooperative Remote Sensing Science and Technology Center. They studied remote sensing as it applies to aerosols, vegetation, hurricanes, coastal waters and "nowcasting" (prediction of severe weather shortly before it occurs). Next March, aboard a NOAA ship sailing the Atlantic between Africa and the Caribbean, Atia will research how aerosols are transported across the ocean. "I want to be involved in work that seeks to solve the world's problems," he said.

Queens College geology major Andrea Balbas spent her summer as an associate at NASA Academy at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. Working with a Goddard researcher, Balbas designed an experiment using microwave radar to measure the ability of common earth sediments such as clay, sand and gravel to absorb energy —research that could cast light on the environmental effects of past radioactive events. She also participated in an Academy project that examined commercialization in space exploration, and completed a paper mapping a strategic plan for NASA and private industry to expand research and space exploration. To read more, see

And now, cut to the Beijing Olympics, or at least to a TV commercial that ran during the summer games. The scene: Bird's Nest stadium. Eight runners are at the 100-meter start line. The pistol sounds and they burst down the track as spectators roar. Famed American sprinter Tyson Gay, in lane five, leads. John Xavier, student-athlete at Bronx Community College, is in lane one. The ad cuts to a message from the Swiss watch company Omega, official timekeepers for the Olympic Games since 1932.

BCC's track and field head coach, Monica Stevens, recommended Xavier in February to scouts seeking runners for the commercial. By mid-March he was flying to Athens for the five-day shoot, at the site of the 2004 Olympic track and field competition. He struck up a friendship with Tyson Gay. "We talked about general stuff and about college life," said Xavier. "He gave me advice on how I can place my legs on the ground so I can come out of the starting blocks faster."

Xavier plans to finish his computer graphics degree and work in the industry. "But at 23," he said, "there is still a possibility that with the proper training, I might begin to compete at a higher level in track events like Tyson Gay."

To see the commercial, go to

Cleaning up a future park on Manhattan's Gansvoort Peninsula is a Lehman College contingent including, from left: Willa Ivory, Amanda Dubois, Lianee Torres, Olga Torres, Maladu Bah and Shomari Brown