November 2015, Volume 19, Number 5


The Investigative Edge

The praise was effusive in September when U.S. Vice President Joe Biden visited MDC’s North Campus to speak about the importance of workforce education, employability and careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields.

“It’s amazing how good [Miami Dade College] is,” said Biden, who had been to MDC in 2014 to give the commencement address. “Thank you for setting the example.”

The demand for STEM talent is so prevalent that the U.S. Department of Labor estimates that at least three million jobs remain unfilled. While the need is great, so are the financial rewards, with starting salaries above $67,000 per year for those with bachelor’s degrees in STEM disciplines, compared to an average of $30,000 for those with degrees in non-STEM areas. 

Miami Dade College’s School of Science (SOS) offers exceptional research opportunities usually reserved solely for graduate students at other institutions. These MDC research programs are available both on campus and through partnerships at collaborating universities, giving MDC STEM grads a competitive edge and impressive head-start in their professional development.

The Turnaround Kid

Biological sciences student Dmitre St. Surin faced difficult odds on his path to success. As a child, he didn’t receive enough guidance on the importance of education and fell victim to disciplinary setbacks.

“I was suspended so many times during my last two years of high school, just for verbal infractions,” said St. Surin, who is working on a bachelor’s degree at MDC’s North Campus. “Even though I had a GPA above 3.0, when you’ve been suspended, they paint a picture of your reality for you and basically throw you to the wolves instead of trying to encourage you.”

Rebellious and discouraged, St. Surin was ready to give up.

“I had decided to drop out of MDC, but after a chance meeting with School of Science Dean Dr. Heather Belmont, my life changed,” he said. “She wanted to get me back on track. She didn’t have to, but when you find someone who believes in you, it changes your whole outlook.” 

With that new winning attitude, St. Surin soon found himself embarking on exciting projects, including one at the University of Iowa where he participated in the Summer Research Opportunity Program (SROP) conducting research into ways to eliminate HIV infection.

“SROP wasn’t just about lab investigation,” he said. “It was also about grooming us to be future scientists, including preparing us to take the GRE one day so that we can get into graduate school, which was really great.”

The program this past summer succeeded because now St. Surin is planning to complete a doctorate in molecular and cell biology. 

While at SROP, the formerly disheartened St. Surin posted a photo on Facebook saying: “They thought that I would be wearing an orange jumpsuit, but instead I’m in a white one. People assumed I’d end up in jail or in trouble with the law, but now I’m in a university lab in a protective jumpsuit, doing important research.” 

A stunning example of the turnaround kid, he has already signed up three youth from his neighborhood to follow in his footsteps and pursue their college degrees at MDC.

Chain Reaction

While at the University of Iowa, St. Surin worked under the tutelage of Dr. M. Nia Madison, the post-doctoral microbiology fellow assigned to work with him during SROP.

“She taught us everything and made sure that we had an amazing experience during our summer research program,” St. Surin said.

He was so impressed with Dr. Madison and convinced she could positively impact other MDC students that he introduced her to his MDC mentor Dr. Selwyn Williams.

Within a month, MDC hired Madison, who is now teaching microbiology at Homestead Campus.

Motivated to Find a Cure

MDC SOS student Lilliam Guerrero never gave up on her dreams of higher education, even though she married young and faced challenges raising two children, including a son diagnosed with autism.

“I always liked the sciences, especially the lab work and research,” she said. “I knew from an early age that this was the area for me.”

In 2008 she began studying at Kendall Campus, juggling classes with raising a family. After going through a divorce, she became more determined than ever to complete a degree and decided to take classes full time in 2014.

This past summer, her passion for investigative lab work led her to MDC’s Summer Research Institute (SRI), where chemistry professor Dr. Andreina Aguado Jiménez became her mentor.

“When I explained my situation to Dr. Jiménez, she was so supportive,” Guerrero said. “She motivated me to continue my education.”

Guerrero racked up an impressive list of credentials in a short time, including an undergraduate research award and a Bank of America Scholarship, all while raising her children on her own as a single mom.

“When I’m cooking, I have my books on the counter to read. If I’ve dropped the kids off at school and I have time before I get to campus, I’ll go study at Starbucks,” she said. “And I pray a lot!”  

After she receives an MDC bachelor’s degree in biological sciences in April 2016, Guerrero has her sights set on a Ph.D. in neuroscience research.

“Certainly as a mom, I want to help my son,” Guerrero said. “But I also want to support other parents who have kids with autism. I want to investigate the causes of this condition and do whatever I can to help.”

In the Labs at MDC

Over the past five years, the federal government has given approximately $5 million to Miami Dade College to fund cutting-edge scientific research in a wide variety of fields ranging from water purification to agronomy. The work in MDC’s labs is capturing the attention of national news organizations and magazines.

Recent studies at MDC gaining accolades include the following:

  • Water purification – Under the direction of Dr. Isaiah Urhoghide, students at North Campus are developing an inexpensive water purification system using corn byproducts that thus far have effectively removed 80 to 90 percent of heavy metals, such as arsenic, lead, copper and nickel, which have adverse effects on the central nervous system and kidneys.
  • Receptor molecules – At Homestead Campus, Dr. James Ley is leading his organic chemistry students in research to prepare new molecules that bind to cannabinoid receptors. Creating new molecules that selectively bind to these receptors has the potential to help develop new medicines.
  • Palm Chloroplast Genetics – At North Campus, Professor Alfredo León is working with his MDC research students to optimize a bar-coding technique used in the agronomy industry to identify plant species. Their particular area of focus is the chloroplast of different palm species, which they study to map the genetic sequence within the organelle. 

— NN

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