The national competition for the American Heart Association’s Hispanic Serving Institutions Scholars Program is always stiff, so Wendy E. Islas, a sophomore Molecular Biology major, almost didn’t apply.
It was Islas’ mother who told her to go for it. “She always tells me, ‘You don’t have anything to lose; don’t count yourself out,’” the sophomore says.
Worried that previous scholars were mostly science majors, Yaire Hernandez, a junior Public Health major, also was hesitant and applied only a couple of weeks before the deadline, at the urging of her Public Health professor, Amanda Birnbaum. “She was very excited, and she thought I was a perfect candidate for it,” Hernandez says. Although prior winners appeared to be “lab-based majors” and Hernandez had no lab experience, she says she decided to “give it a shot.”
It was the first time each student had ever applied for a scholarship – and it paid off in a big way.
Both Islas and Hernandez, along with four other fellow Red Hawks, were named 2022 AHA HSI Scholars, earning the University the largest number of scholarship winners in its first year of participating in the program. The Montclair six are among 30 scholars selected from across the country. In addition to Islas and Hernandez, they include: Kenneth Mosquera-Reinoso, a senior Biochemistry major; Jeffrey Yumbla, a sophomore Biochemistry major; Melissa Spigelman, a junior Molecular Biology major; and Lizet Negrete, a senior Public Health major. Additionally, Islas, Mosquera-Reinoso and Yumbla are Health Careers Program students.
“It’s a very competitive program. I was excited when Montclair came on board, and the scholars that were chosen are just top notch,” says Mitzi Cardona, AHA’s portfolio advisor – Collegiate Diversity Partnerships – Hispanic Serving Institutions. “All of these scholars truly represent Montclair in such an amazing way, and it’s such a privilege for us to have them join our program because they’re inspiring other scholars across the nation.”
Spigelman, in particular, has taken a leadership role, Cardona says: “When I think of a leader in the pack, I always think of Melissa.”
The AHA HSI Scholars Program is in its second year. Funded by Secaucus-based Quest Diagnostics®, the program works with 18 Hispanic-serving colleges and universities in Los Angeles, Puerto Rico, Miami, Houston, Chicago, New York and now New Jersey (a William Paterson University student also was named a Scholar). AHA also offers other programs, including one working with Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
“The intent for this program was to develop a pipeline of Latino/Hispanic students in the science fields and in the healthcare workforce,” Cardona says. “We know that as they prepare to be future physicians, nurses, researchers, healthcare administrators and public health professionals, this program will help build their professional skills.”
She and Katia Paz Goldfarb, associate provost for Hispanic Initiatives and International Programs, credit Provost and Senior Vice President Junius Gonzales for bringing the AHA opportunity to Montclair. Calling it a “perfect partnership,” Cardona says Gonzales “was totally on board with exposing this opportunity to his students.”
Paz Goldfarb says: “It is always incredible when you can bring another wonderful and paid resource to our students. In our first year, we are the single-most represented with six Hispanic Scholars. This is another way that Montclair State University, the largest HSI in New Jersey, is being recognized at the national level.”
The program provides students with an academic year of scientific research experience, professional mentoring, leadership skills workshops and cultural competency training, Cardona says. Each student receives a $7,000 scholarship and an all-expenses paid trip to the Association’s annual conference in Chicago next month, where they will participate in scientific sessions and network with top physicians and researchers from across the country. In the spring, the scholars will present their research findings at a research symposium on the Montclair campus, where more than 100 students from AHA’s various scholarship programs will gather. The students also will receive a medallion during a ceremony celebrating their achievements.
Aside from Montclair’s “amazing campus,” Cardona says she selected the University as the location for this year’s research symposium because the “team at Montclair are just incredible partners; the genuine sincerity of helping their students blew me away, and I wanted all of our scholars to feel and experience that. Beyond what they’re learning in their classroom studies, there’s something to say about powerful connections and networking – and that’s key to their success.”
Each student is assigned a mentor who will oversee their research project. Mosquera-Reinoso’s research involves studying the cytochrome P450 enzyme, which metabolizes drugs, such as antibiotics, and other compounds that enter the body.
“We are trying to understand more about the chemistry and the interaction between the substrate and the enzyme,” he explains, “and more specifically, I’m crystallizing my protein and getting a crystal picture of it.” He says he’s excited about continuing his research during his final year at Montclair; his mentor is Chemistry and Biochemistry Associate Professor Jaclyn Catalano.
In addition to his studies and research project, Mosquera-Reinoso is involved in the Health Careers Program and serves as president of the Medical Community Assistance Club, the pre-med club on campus. In his role as president, he invites physicians, Montclair alumni and medical school admissions staff to serve on panels and speak to students. He also holds down two jobs, as a building manager at the Student Center and as a medical scribe at Holy Name Medical Center in Teaneck.
Mosquera-Reinoso hopes to attend medical school and while he has an interest in oncology, he has yet to decide on a specialty. Although he’s previously won scholarships, he says he’ll likely use the AHA HSI award to help pay for his continued education.
The Biochemistry major, who is Ecuadorian and has been in the United States for only five years, says he’s not traveled much and is eager to attend the AHA conference. “I’m excited to go to Chicago,” he says, smiling. “It’s far enough away that I can fly.”
Hernandez also is excited about traveling to the Windy City. For her project, she is conducting community-based research, something she wrote about in her scholarship essay. She is studying the shopping habits of minority shoppers when given the opportunity to shop at grocery stores that carry organic produce and other products versus their local grocers. Shoppers will be provided gift cards to shop. Her project mentor is Public Health Professor Stephanie Silvera.
“There’re a lot of factors and social determinants of health that we study in Public Health,” Hernandez says. “What you eat determines your health in many ways.”
Hernandez says she hopes to work for a nonprofit after she graduates. “I really just want to give back to communities,” she says, adding that as a child growing up in Morristown, New Jersey, she took advantage of various youth programs. As a result, she would like to create programs that benefit young children.
She says she will reinvest her scholarship award into her education.
“I’m really grateful for this opportunity, and I’m very excited about this scholarship and to see what opportunities it brings,” Hernandez says.
Islas, who is Mexican American, says she was shocked to learn that she’d been named an HSI Scholar. “My mom was really proud of me,” she says of her biggest supporter. “It was a really great feeling.”
The sophomore is joining fellow HSI Scholar Melissa Spigelman on her project working with zebrafish under the guidance of Biology Professor Carlos Molina. “We will be breeding transgenic zebrafish to create another generation in which we will measure any changes in their ovulation,” she says.
Islas says during her freshman year working in a lab, she found she has a passion for research. “I like working with the micropipettes and the glassware, and recording data and finding conclusions,” she says. “So, when this program connected me with a researcher and a mentor, it was a perfect fit.”
Molina, who has been overseeing Spigelman’s research, says he’s happy Islas has joined his lab and hopes she’ll stay to continue working on the project, which uses fish as a model to study both female and male reproduction.
Aside from her goal of being a health professional, Islas says she’s interested in cancer research.
“This is a field that I never really thought I would get into but I’m so grateful that I am because I’m learning new things that I can apply in my classes later on when I go into more advanced courses,” she says. “It’s such a great opportunity.”
She is eager to attend the AHA conference. “I’ve never been to Chicago. I’m so excited. I got a window seat, and I’m very happy.”