Guiding a Future Researcher

By Cathy Jedruczek
Mentor Dr. Shirley Raps, left, and Dr. Jill Bargonetti mentor aspiring scientist Cindy Puente.

It took a village to mentor Cindy Puente, Hunter College senior and aspiring cancer researcher. Several professors in the Department of Biological Sciences recognized Puente's potential early on and took turns advising her until she got accepted to Yale, Harvard, Sloan-Kettering and other top graduate research programs.

"Without my professors, I wouldn't have gone as far as I've gone," says Puente, 22, who chose to pursue a Ph.D. in cancer biology at the Gerstner Sloan-Kettering Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences this fall.

"I don't think I would have gone into science," Puente explained. "It takes a community to build a young scientist. You need people to tell you that it's okay to make mistakes and that you have to shake it off and move on.

Every professor in Hunter's Biological Sciences department allots two hours per week to advise students. Students are also required to seek permission from department professors to enroll in advanced biology courses. It's all part of an effort to help steer students like Puente in the right direction.

"We just want to make sure our students have an idea what they want to do," said Dr. Shirley Raps, biological sciences chair. "It's amazing how they don't know what opportunities are there for them. Sometimes we miss some students because they don't come to see us."

Puente, who was born in the United States but spent most of her childhood in Colombia, thought about becoming a medical lab technician while in her first year at Hunter. But her biology and pre-calculus professor, Dr. Ezra Shahn, told her she had the ability to reach higher.

"I was a good student in high school but I had no interests," Puente says. "I wanted to major in medical laboratory technology because I had an idea that you go to college to get a job after graduation."

Puente listened to Shah's advice and volunteered at Dr. Peter Lipke's biology lab. Lipke recommended her for the Minority Access to Research Careers program, which he headed at that time. She got accepted and joined Dr. Jill Bargonetti's lab.

"She has the ability to ask very thoughtful questions," says Bargonetti, who does cancer research. "That's a sign of somebody who has the ability to think deeply. She's an incredible student."

Although Puente was an outstanding student, she needed special attention in the lab. "Doctor Bargonetti has been very patient and a she's a good mentor," says Puente, who has made tremendous leaps in doing lab research that focuses on understanding the cellular and molecular mechanisms that underlie disease. "She's the one person who sees all of my flaws,"says Puente. "She's very tough, and she didn't allow me to slack."

Puente also thought of becoming a doctor, but after a summer at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York, at Raps' recommendation she set her mind on science research. That experience was sponsored by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, which has funded summer research opportunities for Hunter biology students for several years.

"At Cold Spring Harbor lab, I worked on an independent project," says Puente. "It exposed me to a lot of new techniques and I interacted with people from across the country, including Nobel Prize winner James Watson, [one of the co-discoverers of DNA]."

Puente's work at Cold Spring Harbor and her progress in Bargonetti's lab convinced Raps to nominate her for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute's Exceptional Research Opportunities Program. As a result, Puente spent last summer in Dr. Robert Tjian's lab at the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology at the University of California at Berkeley.

Puente says she wouldn't have accomplished nearly as much without her mentors. "I see them all the time," she says. "They're genuinely concerned and they want to make sure I'm doing okay. So it's motivating to know that people care."