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NMSU graduate receives $300,000 scholarship to attend Harvard Medical School

When he was growing up in northeast El Paso's "Devil's Triangle," attending Harvard Medical School was the farthest thing from Sean Penwell's mind, but the New Mexico State University graduate will do just that this fall thanks to a $300,000 scholarship from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation.

New Mexico State University graduate Sean Penwell has been awarded a $300,000 Jack Kent Cooke scholarship to attend Harvard Medical School. (Courtesy Photo)

Penwell, who has overcome an impoverished childhood, the influence of neighborhood gangs and binge drinking, said his interest in medicine began to take hold in his late teens when he met a special family that invested a great deal of time encouraging him to develop his talents.

"As time passed, I realized that this family was every bit as special to me as my natural family," he said. "At 16 years old, I was adopted by Scott and Vicki Penwell. I took their last name and consider them among my biggest supporters. My families merged and I feel very blessed to have both totally supporting me. How could I not succeed with this kind of emotional support?"

Penwell's biological mother, Marie Wallace, formerly of El Paso, now of Las Vegas, Nev., had always encouraged him to do more for others. The Penwells, who lived in El Paso at the time but are now in Boise, Idaho, exposed him to the opportunities to do just that.

"The Penwells had established a health care service project in Juarez, Mexico, to address the problem of inadequate maternity care for poor mothers. It was during this time that my interest in medicine began to develop," Penwell said.

He became fascinated to learn how the body works and relished the chance to help those less fortunate. He made three medical service trips to the Philippines and three months after his 19th birthday, he moved to the Philippines to work in a free maternity clinic for poor mothers. Faced with a "shockingly enormous need," he worked on a pilot feeding program for severely malnourished children, taught critical health education to parents and, with local health officials, began an immunization program.

"I realized I was destined to be a doctor," Sean said. He returned home to start college.

Penwell received a bachelor's degree in microbiology at New Mexico State University with a distinction in honors in 2004. While at NMSU he worked in the lab of Elba Serrano, an associate professor of biology who established the first molecular and developmental neurobiology laboratory at NMSU.

"Working in Dr. Serrano's lab, I became really interested in neuroscience," Penwell said. "She was a great mentor."

Penwell also participated in the Honors College and the MARC Program - Minority Access to Research Careers, which strives to increase the number and capabilities of scientists from underrepresented minority groups who are engaged in biomedical research.
"We are really proud of Sean and his accomplishments," said Jason Ackleson, who, as the director of scholarships for NMSU's Honors College, assisted Penwell with his application. "Sean is an example of the caliber of students that we work with at NMSU's Honors College. We are thrilled he will be able to pursue his dream of becoming a neurosurgeon."

Once he has mastered neurosurgery at Harvard, he plans to spread that knowledge by conducting surgical clinics in developing countries. "I want to set an example for others to follow," he said.

Penwell was accepted to attend Harvard before he learned that he would receive the scholarship. He said the award will give him the freedom to concentrate on his studies and not worry about money.

"This is all a little surreal and has not really hit home, yet," he said. "The scholars selected by the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation are amazing people dedicated to a life of service and I am humbled to be among them."

The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation is a private, independent foundation established in 2000 by Jack Kent Cooke's estate to help young people of exceptional promise reach their full potential through education. Penwell was one of 76 new recipients of the foundation's graduate and professional scholarships chosen after a nationwide selection process that drew 1,290 nominees from more than 600 colleges and universities across the country. Each scholarship is worth up to $300,000, which is among the largest scholarships offered in the United States.