Rutgers-New Brunswick seniors Nina Gohel and James Cortes come from families with very little in common.
The daughter of immigrants of Indian descent, Gohel was raised by parents who never felt represented by our government and rarely participated in the electoral process.
The son of a single mother struggling on the edge of poverty, Cortes was acutely aware of the crucial role the government and programs such as NJ SNAP and Medicaid played in his life.
This summer, both Eagleton Undergraduate Associates’ paths converged at the New Jersey State House, where they helped craft bills that may become future state policy as part of their Rutgers Summer Service Internship (RSSI).
Launched this year by Rutgers President Jonathan Holloway, RSSI paired 100 Rutgers students with nonprofit and government organizations that best matched their field of study. Each internship came with a $5,000 stipend and a tuition free 3-credit course.
The paid internship was a game-changer for Cortes, a political science major, who is covering tuition through combination of Pell grants, federal loans and Rutgers aid. Prior to his RSSI experience in the New Jersey Senate Majority Office, Cortes worked 30 hours a week to cover his living expenses, which prevented him from taking advantage of the many unpaid internships available in his field.
“Political science is a very networking-heavy field. My parents didn’t go to college. We didn’t have any family connections,” said Cortes, 21, who lives in New Brunswick with his husband after getting married in July. “I thought this program would be a really good way for me to make those connections and put my foot in the door.”
Cortes said he has made the most of this opportunity, attending voting sessions, writing policy memos and summarizing bills for legislators to review. He was involved with legislation on gun safety and the new N.J. child tax credit passed in July. Having a hand in legislation that is positively affecting struggling families – like the one he was raised in – made his work all the more meaningful.
“I was born with tethered spinal cord syndrome and needed a surgery in first grade that was covered by Medicaid. So, if it weren’t for the government, I might not be able to walk,” said Cortes, who was invited to stay on with the Senate Majority Office as a paid employee through the fall and plans to pursue a graduate program in public policy or international relations after graduating in May. “I decided to get into policy work because I knew how much the government helped me, and I wanted to be a part of the people who help the government do more.”
Gohel also sees civic engagement as the best way to make sure her voice – and those of other first-generation Americans – is heard.
Right after the 2016 presidential election, she said she faced different forms of discrimination from individuals who were more emboldened.
“As a woman of color, my belonging was questioned. I want the marginalized groups of my generation to never have to question their belonging in the U.S.,” said Gohel, 21, who is majoring in political science and planning and public policy.
Gohel threw herself into politics early on, participating in student government at her Mount Laurel middle school, serving as vice president of her high school and the New Jersey Association of Student Councils and becoming the first Asian-American and Pacific Islander woman to be elected student body vice president at Rutgers. Last summer, while interning with the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of General Council, she helped reintroduce diversity, equity and inclusion staff trainings that were eliminated under the Trump administration.
During her RSSI in the Office of Assembly Majority Leader Louis Greenwald and Assemblywoman Pamela Lampitt, Gohel brainstormed ideas for new legislation that could address the unmet needs of New Jersey residents. As someone with potentially deadly food allergies, she poured herself into research that led to a bill modeled after an Edison ordinance that will better protect diners and reduce restaurant liability.
“I know what it means to use an EpiPen. It’s a struggle to go out to restaurants and constantly worry about a life-threatening reaction,” said Gohel, whose allergies to tree nuts, shellfish and coconut once landed her in the ER after a restaurant mistakenly made her smoothie with almond milk. “The aim of this bill is to make sure restaurants provide a menu that will at least list the top eight allergens in their dishes to make New Jersey’s food environment safer for those with deadly food allergies.”
Being instrumental in the creation of legislation that is likely to be introduced to the New Jersey State Assembly this fall was inspiring for Gohel, who said she would like to participate in policy work at the local, state or national level after graduating in May.
“Our government needs to reflect all communities and people to properly represent the needs of our nation,” she said. “Now more than ever, public service is so essential to inspire the next generation to go forth and provide a brighter future, and I hope to be a part of that change.”
Story originally appeared in Rutgers Today.
Rutgers researchers are seeking to develop the technology to modify or edit protein molecules in the body—an advance that could spur major breakthroughs in human health. While such research is in its early phases, the Rutgers team has received support from a National Science Foundation (NSF) program that provides funding for boldly conceived research.
“This research, if successful, would build the technology to allow precision editing of proteins,” says Sagar Khare, the principal investigator on the project and a professor of Chemistry and Chemical Biology in the School of Arts and Sciences. “The ability to edit proteins will widen our understanding of fundamental human biology as well as lay the foundation for therapies that could selectively destroy or correct defective proteins associated with disease.”
The research team, which includes faculty members from multiple disciplines on the New Brunswick and Camden campuses, recently received a three-year $1.5 million grant from the NSF Molecular Foundations for Biotechnology program for high-risk-high-payoff research that could set new directions in 21st-century science.
Proteins are the workhorses of biology—responsible for making cells function in all living things. Everything from the immune system to respiration to thought and emotion are carried out by complex protein molecules, each with its own 3D shape that determines its function. Defective or misfolding proteins are associated with illnesses from Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases to cancer.
“Pathologies often arise because protein function goes awry,” says Khare, who is also graduate program director at the Institute for Quantitative Biomedicine. “That is where we come in and try to fix function by selectively modifying particular types of protein.”
The goal, in short, is to build molecules, or “protein editors” in the lab that can recognize, attach to, and modify proteins in the body. That would require a high degree of precision: There are an estimated 10,000 to several million protein molecules in human cells. Accordingly, the project encompasses chemistry, biophysics, robotics, computer science, and statistics.
The team includes Jean Baum, a Distinguished Professor of Chemistry and Chemical Biology in SAS, Adam Gormley, a professor of biomedical engineering in the School of Engineering, Guillaume Lamoureux, professor of chemistry at Rutgers University-Camden, and Sijian Wang, professor of statistics in SAS.
The project would use machine learning, a subfield of artificial intelligence, to train computer models to recognize or predict complex patterns of protein shapes and sequences that can edit a given target protein—like building a lock around a key, says Khare. Modeled proteins would then be synthesized and tested in molecular science labs. The back-and-forth interplay between sophisticated data science and wet lab work would continue over the course of the project, producing increasingly precise models of editors.
The project comes amid the rise of gene editing technologies that are transforming science and medicine by allowing scientists to modify an organism’s genetic material.
Khare says protein editing is the next frontier. “There is no such technology for proteins. But we have some ideas, which makes us think we can do it. And the potential benefits are enormous.”
Story originally appeared in Rutgers SAS.
The Rutgers Institute for Infectious and Inflammatory Diseases made worldwide news last year when its researchers developed a multivariant COVID-19 test that was faster, easier and cheaper than anything previously available. Now leaders of the institute believe Rutgers researchers are poised to make far greater contributions to global health in years to come.
Ongoing projects seek to produce everything from revolutionary allergy treatments to rapid tests for other pathogens to high-tech bandages designed to make wounds heal faster and better.
Nicholas Bessman, a recent recruit from Cornell University, is researching a nutritional treatment that would fight cancer and inflammatory bowel disease by creating a healthier gut microbiome. Karen Edelblum, a researcher recruited from the University of Chicago, has identified an immune cell population in the intestinal barrier that may be targeted for the treatment of Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. Mark Siracusa, originally recruited from the University of Pennsylvania, has recently formed a company called NemaGen that is marketing a novel treatment that targets mast cells to control severe allergic reactions, Their different projects all share a similar basic strategy: targeting harmful components of the immune system while favoring the beneficial functions that guard against infectious diseases.
“We’re at this incredible period in history when advances in our fundamental understanding of both infection and inflammation give us an unprecedented opportunity to create better more personalized treatments for a wide range of conditions: AIDS, malaria, influenza, diabetes, asthma, cardiovascular disease and many more,” said William C. Gause, director of the institute and a Rutgers professor of medicine and a senior associate dean for research.
“We saw both this big opportunity for innovation and a relative lack of research organizations in the space, so Rutgers jumped in with both feet and launched the institute as a major initiative in 2016,” Gause said. “Our team has been doing important work from the start, but after six years of both internal and external recruiting, we have assembled a large team of brilliant people, and the pace of innovation continues to accelerate.”
So far, the institute has expanded from just an idea to 53 full faculty members and about 150 associate faculty members, most of whom also have appointments in other Rutgers schools. Collectively, institute faculty attract about $70 million in annual funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to one of four distinct centers:
- Center for Emerging and Re-emerging Pathogens
- Center for Immunity and Inflammation
- Public Health Research Institute (PHRI)
- Center for Covid Response and Pandemic Preparedness (CCRP2)
The institute has also just launched the new Center for Virus-Host-Innate-Immunity (CVHII) and a new program in neuroinflammation that will operate in collaboration with the Rutgers Brain Health Institute.
External seminar series, journal clubs, data clubs and working lab meetings — many of which are open to researchers throughout Rutgers — have promoted extensive cross-laboratory collaborations that have attracted multi-investigator NIH grants.
The COVID-19 pandemic has made the dangers of infectious disease apparent to all, but the institute’s founders were discussing these dangers and advocating potential solutions long before COVID-19 even existed.
Indeed, early documents from the institute now seem prescient. A PowerPoint presentation Gause gave at several meetings in 2018 predicted the institute would be able to help global health by developing novel rapid diagnostic tests for rapidly spreading pathogens. In 2021, a team led by David Alland, who directs both the PHRI and the CCRP2, did exactly that.
The test, which Rutgers made freely available worldwide, was the first COVID-19 test to use “sloppy molecular beacon probes,” which are highly sensitive and specific DNA sequences used to detect frequent mutations in organisms. It was developed and validated in just a few weeks.
“We are well positioned to develop many other tools of equal or greater impact,” said Alland, who also is chief of the division of infectious diseases at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School. “We have a great team and great facilities as well, including some that are truly rare, like an NIH-funded regional biocontainment laboratory — one of 12 in the US — where research on highly infectious select pathogens can be conducted in biosafety level 3 laboratory conditions. That’s a pretty nice thing to have when you’re doing infectious disease research.”
Story originally appeared in Rutgers Today.
When Gigio K. Ninan and Kanwar S. Kelley studied at Rutgers Law School in Camden slightly more than a decade ago, the two hungry students frequented the Palace of Asia restaurant in Cherry Hill. It was there that they discussed their medical malpractice litigation class while feasting on tikka masala, palak paneer, and warm garlic naan at the $12 all-you-can-eat lunch buffet.
Ninan CLAW’11, a New York attorney who often represents medical practices and pharmacies, and Kelley CLAW’10, a California physician and entrepreneur, didn’t know at the time that these trips to their favorite buffet would be the genesis of a friendship that would span the years. That connection served as the impetus for the Kanwar S. Kelley and Gigio K. Ninan Endowed Graduate Scholarship, awarded to Camden students at Rutgers Law School interested in pursuing a career in health care. “There was some synergy in doing a health care-related scholarship because of the type of companies I represent and the health care tech and medical space that Kanwar works in,” Ninan says.
John T. Vaughan III NLAW’02 also had an impactful experience at Rutgers Law School in Newark. A native of Wyckoff, New Jersey, Vaughan now lives in Los Angeles. Still, he hasn’t forgotten his Garden State roots or the law school that helped him launch a successful career as a corporate legal officer whose work spans technology, biotechnology, pharmaceuticals, and the medical device industry. Vaughan and his spouse, Jeffrey Darna, an anesthesiologist and research scientist, established the Vaughan-Darna Health Sciences Scholarship, an endowed scholarship for Newark students at Rutgers Law School who intend to pursue a career in health law. “I did that because Rutgers gave me a great education that led me to a successful career,” Vaughan says. “I want to make sure others have that chance.”
The two endowed scholarships intended for graduates entering the health sciences and health care fields are unique in being established by younger alumni. Alumni often establish endowed scholarships at or near the end of their careers. At 39 and 36, respectively, Kelley and Ninan are among the youngest alums ever to establish an endowed scholarship at Rutgers University–Camden.
Scholarships that Kelley, Ninan, and Vaughan received as law students are a motivating factor in their gifts to the law school. Vaughan received the Austin Scott Scholarship, established in memory of a former head of the Rutgers College Department of Economics. “This is paying that back with interest,” Vaughan says.
Kelley and Ninan both received scholarships offered to Rutgers Law in Camden students. “It meant a lot to me because without that money, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to connect over buffet with Kanwar,” Ninan says.
A commitment to New Jersey
Vaughan was inspired to establish a scholarship while attending a Rutgers Law reunion. That’s where he bumped into former classmates Kerry Flynn NLAW’03, RBSG’03 and Chris Andrew NLAW ’02, and learned they had established a restricted scholarship in 2015. “That opportunity to reminisce with folks and take stock of how Rutgers has contributed to my success was inspirational,” Vaughan says.
Vaughan sees his scholarship not only as an opportunity to help students financially but also as a way to invest in New Jersey, which is widely known as “the medicine chest of the world” because of its pharmaceutical and health sciences industries. “I’m proud of being born and raised in New Jersey, and I’m proud of my Rutgers education,” he says. “I want to make sure that New Jersey continues to be a life sciences leader and the one way I can do that is to provide this scholarship for health law in the state.”
Friends committed to Rutgers Law
Kelley has established a successful Ear, Nose, and Throat (ENT) practice in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is also cofounder of Shingle Technologies, which helps physicians start, manage, and grow their private practices, and Side Health, which provides fully integrated, comprehensive care for people with chronic medical conditions. Kelley says he’s proud to make time to support Rutgers Law and encourages fellow alums to do the same. “It’s super important to get involved early and, quite honestly, there’s never a good time to give financially,” Kelley says. “There’s always going to be something competing for your financial interests—whether it’s buying a house, buying a new car, putting your kids through school—but it’s super important at the same time to give back, even if it’s a small dollar amount.”
Ninan, cofounder and partner of Shankar Ninan & Co., a boutique law firm based in New York, also volunteers his time, serving as chancellor of the Rutgers Law School–Camden Alumni Association. Recently he was appointed to the Rutgers Law School Dean Search Committee. Ninan realizes that not all young alumni can afford to endow a scholarship, but he encourages them to volunteer and participate. “Time and alumni engagement are extremely valuable, and volunteering is a surefire way that younger alumni can pay it forward to our future leaders.”
Before Danna Green started a summer internship at the Camden Redevelopment Agency (CRA), she hadn’t realized the power citizens can have in influencing change in their community.
The Rutgers-Camden senior learned about city government by attending council, planning board and neighborhood stakeholder meetings, and listening for residents’ comments related to CRA’s work of revitalizing neighborhoods. Hearing people speak out inspired her to pursue her own community advocacy.
“I had no idea I could attempt to do something I believe in and make an impact in this city,” said Green, among the first 100 Rutgers students accepted into Rutgers Summer Service Internship Initiative (RSSI). RSSI gives undergraduates experience at nonprofits and government agencies that provide direct services. The program includes a $5,000 stipend to attract participants like Green who could not afford to take an unpaid internship. It also includes a three-credit civic engagement course.
Green said she feels empowered to help Camden parents who, like herself, have children with learning disabilities. The married mother of twins with attention deficit challenges enrolled at Rutgers-Camden to major in childhood studies and psychology because “I wanted to understand what my children were going through,” she said.
“Now, I realize I can make a difference in the Camden school system. So many kids who need supports in the classroom aren’t getting it,” Green said. “I want to educate parents on ADHD and life skills that can help, so that they aren’t afraid to be their child’s best advocate.”
Green was an adult when diagnosed with a learning disability, so she was aware of the challenges her sons would face. She’d struggled through school, logging long hours to compensate for the difficulty she had processing information. To help her 9-year-old boys, she spends much of summer breaks preparing them for the upcoming school year.
“I’m teaching my kids to push forward, even when they feel frustrated or challenged,” she said. Green talks to her children about opportunities that await them. “I want them to have bigger dreams about what they can accomplish in life and not feel limited.”
Green transferred to Rutgers-Camden after completing an associate’s degree at Camden County College, becoming the first in her family to earn a college degree. When she graduates next spring, the 40-year-old intends to pursue a master’s degree and then work in the public school system while also pursuing her passion project of parent advocacy.
“I’ve had so much personal growth, both as a student and for my career path,” Green said about her experience interning 20 hours a week over 10 weeks this summer. “Every day was an excellent opportunity to develop my professional network while sharpening my skills.”
Growing up in North Camden, Green said she and her mother would walk past city hall “and I wondered what the building represented and what actually happened in there.” The internship gave her a front-row seat to how government worked.
Green wrote summaries of public comments made at meetings to provide CRA leadership insight into community sentiment on potential redevelopment. Fluent in Spanish, Green translated agency documents describing how residents begin the process of purchasing CRA properties so they could participate in city development, and spoke with Spanish speakers who came to the agency.
By August, Green was involved in the CRA’s community outreach and communications effort to gather input from residents, anchor institutions and nonprofits in the Bergen Square neighborhood about what redevelopment they want to see there. She created a flyer for residents and a survey to solicit input from community leaders and organizations on neighborhood aspirations for reuse of vacant and underutilized properties
CRA Interim Executive Director Olivette Simpson said she was impressed by Green’s passion to make a difference. “We have so many issues that come up on any given day, and Danna is always willing to take the initiative to research additional information so that we may follow up,” Simpson said.
“It’s empowering for interns to see the impact of their efforts in real time,” Simpson said. Internships with government entities and nonprofits “provide a foundation for inspirational leadership, citizenship and policy implementation that positively impacts the pursuit of equity and fairness in people’s lives through public policy.”
Simpson and Green applauded Rutgers President Jonathan Holloway’s wider call for a mandatory national public service initiative to unify the country and promote citizenship. In a July 2021 guest editorial in the New York Times, Holloway proposed that all young adults be required to complete a year of civic or military service by age 25.
Green said Holloway’s proposal will inspire “a new generation to work toward a world they want to see. You can serve your country by giving back in your own community, making it safer and healthier.”
Story originally appeared in Rutgers Today.
Gerardo Leal and Ardita Mirza are 30 years apart in age, but the two Rutgers undergraduates share a similar passion for helping people in crisis survive.
Leal, 51, now a naturalized citizen, came to the United States at 17 from Mexico with others smuggled in the trunk of a car. “It was someone I didn’t know who picked us up, charged us a lot of money and treated us like cattle,” he said.
Undocumented, he lived under the radar for years in a gang-infested community during the crack epidemic of the 1980s while working in New York City restaurants. Facing racism in those jobs, Leal found himself becoming an activist fighting for higher wages and better working conditions.
This summer, Leal, a senior at Rutgers University-Newark, and Mirza, who is in her final year at Rutgers University-New Brunswick, were among 100 students who participated in Rutgers’ first Summer Service Internship (RSSI) initiative. The program provides funding to open up public services opportunities for students and connect them with nonprofit organizations or direct-service government offices.
Both students interned at the International Rescue Committee (IRC), a global nonprofit organization that helps people affected by humanitarian crises to survive, recover and rebuild their lives.
Mirza, 21, who grew up in Flemington in a middle-class family, was influenced by her mother’s research into women being killed over money through dowry murders in South Asia. Her mother was studying the treatment of women for an undergraduate degree at Rutgers.
“I listened to my mother practice her presentation in front of me as a 9-year-old,” she said.
Today, Mirza has a long list of honors and academic achievements for her advocacy, mentorship and outreach to other students and the community. At Rutgers she has been a policy advocate, peer educator, mentor, fundraising fellowship intern and research fellow, besides being an honor student.
But her successes didn’t come easy.
As a brown woman in a predominately white high school of over 3,200 students, she felt isolated and frustrated and found herself in a downward spiral with sinking grades. It wasn’t until she received the top grade in a math class, where her grade had been slipping, that her perspective changed.
Her teacher told her that she did well because “she said she would,” which made her begin to feel better about herself and her future.
“These words have stuck with me, and I approach every unexpected bump in the road with this philosophy,” she said. “I do well when I say I will.”
Mirza and Leal were selected from a group of 600 who applied to the initiative first announced by Rutgers President Jonathan Holloway last year during his inauguration as Rutgers 21st president. Holloway said he believed the internships could change a life, open a mind and save democracy by bringing people together to build understanding of their similarities and differences.
Students earn up to $5,000 after completing the 200-hour public service internship and take a 3-credit (tuition-free) virtual course as part of the program.
For Leal, the experience was a dream come true, giving him the chance to help others who face the same kinds of obstacles he did when he was younger.
After staying at home and caring for his two children for several years while his wife earned her master’s degree and worked as an ESL teacher, Leal took the advice of family and friends and enrolled in a community college.
As a semi-finalist for the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation Undergraduate Transfer Scholarship, which supports high-achieving community college students, Leal declined the opportunity to apply to other universities, including Yale, because he always wanted to attend Rutgers. He transferred to Rutgers-Newark in 2021 from Hudson County Community College, decades after he first left Mexico.
He is now working toward an undergraduate degree in social work and plans to follow up with a master’s degree.
This summer, Leal dedicated his time, through the internship, to helping those like his 17-year-old self find shelter and food banks and connecting them with employment and legal services. He said the IRC was at the top of his list of the 71 organizations that students were paired with when he applied to be part of the RSSI initiative because he saw it as an opportunity to use his experiences to help others.
“The idea that I could go back there at 51 and work with the same type of people like me, I knew would help me complete my healing cycle,” said Leal who lives in Weehawken. “I feel super happy and proud to be helping people with their dreams. Sometimes I can’t believe that I’m here but there have been so many people who have helped me along the way.”
Vera Liu, an attorney and legal representative in the IRC New York office who supervised Leal, said he made a difference in the lives of the people he helped.
“Gerardo used his excellent language skills to make sure clients were properly served,” Liu said. “He contributed his enthusiasm, empathy and cultural awareness daily.”
Mirza, who spent the summer teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) to refugees at the IRC site in Elizabeth during her internship, wants to work to stop international human trafficking after she graduates. She says the experience she gained this summer has been something that she would never have had in a classroom. She has been asked to stay on at IRC through December.
Vera Liang, adult education coordinator at the Elizabeth site, said Mirza “demonstrated strong project management, cross-cultural communication and leadership skills during her internship. She had a great impact on our clients’ education by reaching out to educational providers and advocating opportunities for them.”
Mirza’s experience advocating for IRC clients as she helped them fill out applications, answered questions and connected them to services gave her insight into the value of the work being done.
“On my first day I realized just how important the IRC is and why the work they do has to exist,” said Mirza, who is majoring in political science and criminal justice with a minor in critical intelligence studies at Rutgers-New Brunswick. “When I spoke to the children who came in, I recognized the terrible experiences that they already had to go through in their very short lives and understood that they experienced so much more hardship than I have or ever will.”
Story originally appeared in Rutgers Today.
“What did we learn yesterday?” asks Rashade Haynes II as he kicks off the final day of a weeklong summer camp focused on science education for 23 middle schoolers from the Newark area.
Hands of the eager young people seated before him in a Bristol Myers Squibb meeting room shoot up. “About DNA—the double helix,” one girl says. Others echo her answer.
After opening remarks, Haynes introduces two Bristol Myers Squibb medicinal chemists to the students. The scientists run through an entertaining series of experiments that cover topics such as the properties of dry ice, water vapor, carbon dioxide, and liquid nitrogen. They also use leaf blowers to show air pressure and demonstrate Bernoulli’s Principle, a scientific cornerstone related to flight and other functions.
John Bender, who leads the demonstrations, tells the students that although he has been a scientist for decades, he still gets excited doing the daily experiments his job requires. Earlier in the week, instructors showed the young camp-goers how the heart, lungs, and human digestive system work. “If you have curiosity for your whole life, science is where you want to be,” Bender says.
For Haynes, encouragement like this is the goal of the summer program—a partnership between Rutgers and Bristol Myers Squibb held in early August for four days at Rutgers–Newark and one day at the company’s New Brunswick location. A native of East Orange, New Jersey, Haynes received his bachelor of animal science degree at Rutgers’ Cook College in 2002 before earning a Ph.D. in cellular and molecular immunology and retrovirology at Ohio State University. Now a senior principal scientist for Bristol Myers Squibb, he engages students with the enthusiasm and charm of a beloved middle school teacher.
What it’s like to be a scientist
Haynes initiated the idea for the camp partnership between Rutgers–Newark and Bristol Myers Squibb, one of the world’s largest biopharmaceutical companies. “My idea was to give these young students a holistic view of what it’s like to be a scientist,” he says. “Hopefully, by osmosis, they can see themselves taking the same path.”
Sheronia Rogers, assistant dean for Rutgers–Newark’s Center for PreCollege Programs, which runs the camp, says the center serves more than 2,000 students and parents annually by facilitating various programs throughout Newark, East Orange, Orange, Irvington, and the greater Essex County area. She says the Bristol Myers Squibb STEM camp fulfills a key goal of the center. “A lot of the students that we serve from marginalized communities may not get much STEM access and exposure,” Rogers says, adding that the middle school students come from the Rutgers–Newark center’s partner schools. “STEM exposure is extremely important.”
Although for some students the camp introduces them to scientific research, for others it’s a chance to explore career possibilities. Carlos Barahona, who will be a first-year student at Cicely L. Tyson High School of Performing and Fine Arts in East Orange, is fascinated by an experiment that simulated the workings of the respiratory system. “It helped me understand how the diaphragm works and helps out the lungs,’’ says Carlos, who is considering becoming a scientist or math teacher.
He also learns from experiments that problem-solving is a big part of research. “We had to go through multiple trial and errors because some parts weren’t working out at first,’’ Carlos says.
The first four days of the camp consist of morning presentations by the company’s scientists and afternoon sessions led by Rutgers–Newark undergraduate and graduate students who guide the middle schoolers in experiments. Rogers says the diverse mix of college science majors serves as excellent examples for the middle schoolers. “They see Rutgers students and see that it’s possible for them.”
Tiffany Olivera—a Rutgers–Newark graduate student from Kearny, New Jersey, who is in her second year of study for a doctorate in chemistry—says she enjoys working with the middle schoolers. “I appreciate the diversity in this program,” says Olivera, a first-generation American whose parents immigrated from South America. “I don’t see very many brown women or Black women in the sciences. I love reaching out to these communities. I want these students to know that they shouldn’t let barriers stand in their way.”
Something to BRAG about
Haynes says this Rutgers and Bristol Myers Squibb summer camp partnership is just one example of how the university and the company work together. About three years ago, Haynes, along with his work peers and fellow Rutgers alums Austin Thekkumthala SAS’13, GSNB’15, and Dan Szatkowski CC’06, led the formation of BRAG, which stands for Bristol Myers Squibb Rutgers Alumni Group, to unite the 1,700 Rutgers alumni employed at the company.
Thekkumthala, a native of Union Township, New Jersey, who earned his undergraduate and graduate science degrees at Rutgers, worked as a security guard at Bristol Myers Squibb to help pay his way through school. While unlocking a door one day, he met a mentor who helped him land an internship which led to his full-time job as a scientist. He says volunteering his time at the camp and mentoring young people are a way to pay back the support he received. “Success comes with a moral obligation to help others,” Thekkumthala says.
Deodate Davis, an associate scientist at Bristol Myers Squibb, who previously was a research teaching specialist at the Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey, was a co-leader of the camp and helped BRAG members organize the company’s participation. Previously, BRAG has partnered on webinars, a public health equity program, and intern recruitment. “There is so much enthusiasm to give back to the university,” says Szatkowski, who is pursuing a doctorate in toxicology at Rutgers.
Haynes says BRAG plans to work with Rutgers–Newark to build on the program’s success and will hold the camp again next year. The Bristol Myers Squibb group also is hopeful to replicate the program in partnership with Rutgers programs in Camden and New Brunswick.
John Borgese, director for career and industry engagement for the Rutgers University Alumni Association, credits several at Rutgers–Newark for supporting the camp: School of Arts and Sciences–Newark Dean Jacqueline S. Mattis; Patricia Margulies, assistant dean for development; and Steven Smith, director of corporate and foundation relations. Borgese says the Bristol Myers Squibb partnership is an excellent example of how Rutgers, as the state’s flagship university with more than 570,000 alumni, can create programs with large companies that serve common goals such as expanding diversity, building community connections, and supporting projects that serve the common good.
For more about how to get a company or organization involved, visit the Rutgers University Alumni Association’s Alumni Workplace Engagement page.
Carrie Stetler contributed to this story.
In the world of higher education, what force is more powerful than a united Rutgers community?
Answer: the movement that takes place when a public research powerhouse like Rutgers joins with Big Ten conference partners to create change.
Supporting talented students has always been central to the mission of each Big Ten Institution. Now, the conference is harnessing its collective energy to reshape access to higher education and build new opportunities for students from all walks of life.
With the One Big Week movement, Rutgers and its Big Ten partners are highlighting an undeniable fact: that talented students exist in every zip code and income bracket, and that no student should be denied opportunities—or be forced to take on crushing loan debt—because of those differences.
For one week, from August 31 to September 7, donors across the nation can make a tremendous impact by supporting access to quality education and student services at their favorite Big Ten school. At Rutgers, the One Big Week movement focuses on the university’s Scarlet Promise Initiative to increase opportunities for Rutgers students and those planning to attend Rutgers.
The Scarlet Promise Initiative gathers together an array of programs and funds dedicated to encouraging students as they prepare for and access a Rutgers education—and to excel both during their student years and beyond. The initiative comprises programs and funds that provide direct need-based financial aid, emergency financial support, academic counseling, food security, career counseling, and more—programs that help find, foster, and support the talent of Rutgers students throughout New Jersey and around the world.
“There is no greater calling for university communities than to make sure our students can pursue an excellent, life-changing education and the extraordinary opportunities that can come with it,” said Rutgers University President Jonathan Holloway. The Scarlet Promise Initiative, which grew out of Holloway’s call for greater student support on his first official day in office, is designed to offset the realities of financing a college education today.
What does it look like to face those realities while pursuing a degree? Rutgers students receiving financial aid still have an average unmet need of more than $11,000 each year, totaling almost $400 million annually. Many wrestle with astonishing debt as they complete their degrees, often prolonging their studies well beyond the traditional four years of college. These factors limit career mobility and delay life milestones such as buying a home and starting a family.
That makes the Scarlet Promise all the more urgent. Rutgers can only fulfill this promise with philanthropic support from the full spectrum of the global Rutgers community—and through transformative movements like One Big Week. Only by acting together can the higher education community transcend the forces that historically have prevented many students from realizing their excellence and potential.
Together, the Rutgers community and the Big Ten community can produce a whole far greater than the sum of their parts. This is a hallmark of leadership—the recognition that we create more powerful change through collaboration, and that we owe it to future generations to do so.
To learn more and donate to One Big Week, visit support.rutgers.edu/onebigweek.
By Jared Brey
Rutgers School of Nursing–Camden senior Sungao Macauley had doubted herself at first, so she was thrilled to win a spot as one of seven students in the inaugural class of the school’s Undergraduate Nursing Research Fellowship program. She went on to spend six weeks over the summer working with nursing faculty on a variety of research projects that included interviewing residents of an assisted-living facility in Camden and conducting research for a project focused on climate change, health, and environmental justice. “I went to do something that I wasn’t comfortable in, and it opened up my eyes and showed me I could do a lot more than I thought I could,” Macauley says.
Macauley felt particularly inspired after assisting Mei Rosemary Fu, professor of nursing and senior associate dean for research, and Wanda Williams, a clinical associate professor whose research analyzing racial disparities in breast cancer screening in Camden is funded by a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation grant. Williams is a breast cancer survivor, and Macauley found it insightful to work with from someone with lived experience. She also felt motivated by learning from faculty of color who had risen to the heights of the nursing profession. “It’s different when you have somebody who looks like you, and they’ve made it so far,” Macauley says.
Fu, an accomplished nursing scholar who joined the Rutgers–Camden faculty in 2021 after posts at NYU and Boston College, founded the fellowship program to deepen undergraduate student exposure to research. All nursing students at Rutgers–Camden take a research class as part of the core curriculum, but the summer fellowship gives students a chance to dig deeper. Fellows focus on collecting, reading, and analyzing research data, and conducting literature reviews. Fu said with more research studies being conducted by nursing researchers, future fellows will be offered a comprehensive experience that will enable them to conceptualize, complete, and disseminate a study.
Aside from bringing new rigor to their research skills, Fu says, the fellowship also allows students to learn from accomplished scientists and expand their professional networks, opening up new potential avenues in their careers. Opportunities to hone professional skills included making a presentation to the senior vice president and chief nursing executive at Cooper University Health Care.
The ultimate goal of the fellowship, Fu says, is to prepare nurses to play a role in improving the overall quality of health care. “Nursing is a care profession, and you need to develop science and knowledge which are evidence-based,” she says. “That’s the major driver of nursing research—to advance the science and knowledge of patient care.”
Fundraising for year two
Fu began organizing the summer fellowship program soon after she arrived at Rutgers–Camden, raising $10,000 to support the program. That included a substantial donation of her own and significant donations from interim university Provost Donna Nickitas, formerly dean of the School of Nursing, and interim Dean of the Rutgers School of Nursing–Camden Marie O’Toole. In all, 25 donors pitched in, which allowed the school to offer each student participating a $600 stipend and free summer tuition. (Fellows earn one hour of course credit for the program.)
Fu is currently seeking donors at all levels to help expand the fellowship and is hoping that it can be offered for cohorts of up to 40 students per year in a few years. She says the program will build research capacity at the school and deepen collaborations with Rutgers and health care systems and communities, as well as prepare a new generation of nurses to provide better care. “Training students from the undergraduate level and providing opportunities for them to observe successful researchers are important for their career development,” Fu says.
How research benefits nursing
Samantha Lafferty, a junior, decided to enter the health care field partly because of her experience growing up with a grandfather who had Alzheimer’s. A project she did on genetics as a high school senior sparked her interest in the research side of the profession. She says that helping to analyze and verify data for real research projects led by Fu and others inside and outside the university was an enlightening experience. She saw it as a way to get exposure to many more patients’ perspectives than she would just by doing bedside care. “There’s always a new, better, more efficient way of doing things,” Lafferty says. “I think doing research to find out what those ways are, using evidence-based practice, really can change the way that health care is done.”
Rachael Merrick, a recent graduate who completed the fellowship, says while nursing experience makes you a better researcher, the reverse is also true—having familiarity with research and data can make you a better nurse. “I think it gives you a different edge, a different mindset,” Merrick says. “It makes you a more well-rounded nurse. You bring a different aspect to your care and working with your patients.”
The New Jersey State Policy Lab at Rutgers has released a report about the effects of marijuana use on health, education, and law enforcement. The report measures the impact of legalization and identifies disparities among different communities. “This analysis is critical to New Jersey, setting a model similar to other states in recognizing that all people in the state are not the same, and by legalizing cannabis, its impact on different communities is going to vary,” says Charles Menifield, the study’s principal investigator and dean of the School of Public Affairs and Administration. The study uses secondary data to provide a snapshot of present-day usage and law enforcement measures across age, race, and gender lines. It also gauges youth attitudes about marijuana as well as medical and behavioral health factors that could be affected by legalization.
Story originally appeared in Rutgers Magazine.