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New Mexico State University

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Student holds to dream of becoming research scientist

When Berenice Carrillo was 4 years old, she told her mother she wanted to be a pediatrician when she grew up.

ys thought physicians were great because they cured people and I wanted to experience that type of work and see the gratification in a child's eyes," she said.

When she came to New Mexico State University, her career plans took a somewhat different route.

"It wasn't until I met Dr. Glenn Kuehn, a biochemistry professor, that I realized I didn't have to be a medical doctor to cure people," she said. "I could also conduct research and find the cause of a particular disease and why not the cure."

And so Carrillo's life in science began.

Now the senior from Chaparral, N.M., is well on her way to graduating with a degree in biochemistry and she plans to go on for her Ph.D. She credits a program at NMSU called Minority Access to Research Careers with putting her on the path to graduate school. The MARC program aims to increase the numbers of under-represented minorities in the biomedical and behavioral sciences.

For Carrillo, getting to and attending college hasn't been easy. Her single mother worked to raise her and her two older brothers and couldn't afford to send them to school.

"I knew my mom did not have the money to pay for college, so I had to work hard to obtain scholarships," Carrillo said.

Carrillo entered NMSU in 2001 as the first from her immediate family to attend college.

"I never really thought that college was out of my reach," she said. "Everyone says that the U.S. is the land of opportunity and in many ways I saw it as such. I knew that there were opportunities for those who wanted to attend college and I worked hard to get a hold of those opportunities. In my mind there was always a voice that said, 'If others can do it, so can you.'"

She kept that positive attitude after becoming pregnant during her sophomore year.

"Many people told me I was not going to be able to work, go to college and take care of a baby," she said. "They told me to just realize I was going to be another dropout. Despite their pessimism, I decided to continue pursuing my dream of being a scientist."

Today, she works and goes to school while raising her 1-year-old son, Sebastian.

"I'm accomplishing everything I was told I couldn't do," she said.

Carrillo said persistence, along with support from the MARC program at NMSU, allowed her to persevere. After a friend told Carrillo about how minority students could work in research laboratories through the MARC program, Carrillo knew what she had to do.

"This was great news for me since I wanted to pursue a career in research, but really did not know exactly how it worked," Carrillo said. "I knew that if I got into the MARC Program I would be able to gain experience and see what research was all about."

That experience, she said, can be hard to come by as an undergraduate and a minority.

Carrillo said the program also has helped her prepare for the Graduate Record Examination (GRE), conduct research at premier institutions and travel to present research projects at national conferences.

This summer, Carrillo, whose major research interests include virology and cancer, interned at the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Ariz., a cancer center designated by the National Cancer Institute. At the clinic, she researched hormone receptors under the direction of some of the premier scientists in the field. She said this research could lead to the development of new drugs for the treatment of prostate cancer.

"It seems there could be a way of inhibiting the growth of prostate cancer by altering one of the proteins that helps with the binding of testosterone to the receptor," Carrillo said excitedly. "Testosterone is responsible for the growth of the prostate, so by preventing testosterone to bind to its receptor, we would be able to prevent the growth of the prostate and, in this case, cancer itself."

Carrillo's enthusiasm toward science is no surprise to Michael Johnson, professor of chemistry and biochemistry and director of NMSU's MARC program. He said Carrillo continues to impress him each day with her academic skills and her personality.

"Her drive and persistence in her work are evident in her productivity and potential as an upcoming scientist," he said. "Couple all this with the fact that she is a single mother, which simply leaves me astounded at her ability to balance her academics, work and family."

NMSU's MARC program, funded by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences since 1977, has worked with more than 180 students. Of that group, 70 percent have gone on to receive post-graduate degrees.

"Programs such as MARC are vital to areas like New Mexico because it gives students from backgrounds that are traditionally under-represented in the academic and research arenas the encouragement and opportunity to consider careers in biomedical research," Johnson said.

In addition to various training and research opportunities, MARC scholars are awarded full tuition and fees, a monthly stipend and health insurance, if needed.

MARC is open to junior or senior students at NMSU who have a grade point average greater than 3.0, Johnson said. MARC students are expected to pursue a Ph.D. in a biomedical field upon graduation, he said.

For more information call the MARC office at 505-646-4041 or go to http://www.chemistry.nmsu.edu/~research/MARC/MARC.html.