Barry senior wins prestigious biology research award at MIT

Barry senior wins prestigious biology research award at MIT

Bertina Telusma is only 21, but she's already something of a regular at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), one of the premier research universities in the world.

In the past two years, Bertina completed a six day intensive Quantitative Biology Workshop and a Summer internship, with flying colors.  In fact, her work was so impressive that she was invited to spend the Spring 2016 semester at MIT and audit Dr. Steve Bell’s 12 credit molecular biology course and lab.

Bertina, a biology senior at Barry, is the 2016 recipient of the Exceptional Research Opportunities Program (EXORP) Award, a project of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI).  She will be studying DNA replication, which can shed light on diseases such as cancer.

It's all a heady experience, she confesses, for someone who was born in Haiti and only  came to the United States in 2008.

"I never dreamed to have so much opportunity offered to me," she says by phone from Boston. "I'm trying to take full advantage and be the very best I can be. I want to give back when the time comes.  I'm very grateful and very thankful."

As an EXORP awardee, Bertina will do 10 weeks of full-time research in the lab of an HHMI scientist. She will also receive a $5,000 cash award and take part in a local summer research program with other undergraduates. The program will also cover her travel and housing.

According to the website, the program is geared to ethnic groups traditionally underrepresented in the sciences. The goal is to ensure that a diverse and highly trained workforce is available to assume leadership roles in science, including college and university faculty who have the responsibility to develop the next generation of scientists.

Bertina says she was astonished to learn of her acceptance in the program.

"MIT? Omigod!" she remembers saying when she got the email notification in February. "I had a wonderful experience there. Now I'm about to go back."

It's all a long way from her birthplace in Les Cayes, on the southern coast of Haiti. After her family moved to the U.S., she attended Plantation High School in Broward County.  Her mother became a caregiver at a nursing home, while her father bought and sold land in Haiti.

Bertina planned to go to the University of Central Florida in Orlando, but she had to delay a semester while she obtained a permanent residency card. Meanwhile, she was applying to other schools and was accepted to Barry.

She says she's glad she chose a smaller school. At 9,000 students, Barry allows more interaction with teachers, an asset Bertina values.

"That's an advantage to me," she says. "I can take anything to the teachers, and they help me. It's a wonderful school and it has supported me so much."

She decided on a major in biology, with a goal of a career in research rather than treatment. "There's a lot of reward in that. When you do research, you discover new things."

At Barry, Bertina has been part of the Research Initiative for Scientific Enhancement (RISE), funded by the National Institutes of Health, which aims at increasing minority representation in the biomedical sciences.

Bertina makes a point of publicly thanking two Barry officials. One is Dr. Flona Redway, director of the RISE program at the university. She first got Bertina into a research class at Barry, and then urged her to apply for the HHMI award.

"I thought I wasn't going to get it, but Dr. Redway pushed me to apply," Bertina says. "I will forever be grateful."

The other major influence has been Dr. Teresa Petrino-Lin, her mentor at Barry. "I worked in her lab, and she was always available to talk about experiments. She would stay late and work with me. She made sure I was well prepared to do the research."

More help came from Dr. Mandana Sassanfar, director of the summer program at MIT. She talked to Dr. Redway about getting Bertina to study there.  

Bertina expects to emerge from her HHMI stint with some new strengths and skills: "Much more confidence about pursuing a career in biomedical sciences, experience conducting research, and enhanced critical thinking skills."

She is scheduled to graduate from Barry in 2017, and yes, she plans to attend graduate school. Where does she want to go? You can probably guess. Her school-away-from-school: MIT.