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Three CCNY Students Named 2011 Salk Scholars

Deborah Ayeni, Maria Otazo (top) and Joshua Usani are 2011 Salk Scholars.

Deborah Ayeni, Maria Otazo and Joshua Usani, members of The City College of New York Class of 2011, have been selected to receive 2011 Jonas E. Salk Scholarships awarded by The City University of New York.  

The awards recognize the high ability and scholarship of students who plan careers in medicine and the biological sciences and who are judged likely to make significant contributions to medicine and research. They are selected on the basis of original research papers undertaken with prominent scientist/mentors.

“I commend this year’s Salk Scholars on their commitment to academic quality and to public service, whether as physicians treating the sick and underprivileged, or as researchers working toward medical breakthroughs,” said CUNY Chancellor Matthew Goldstein in announcing the selections.  “Their work exemplifies the proud legacy of Dr. Jonas E. Salk.”

“I join with Chancellor Goldstein in congratulating Deborah, Maria, Joshua and the winners from the other CUNY Colleges,” said CCNY President Lisa Staiano-Coico.  “These accomplishments are fitting tributes to their hard work, and passion and to the support they received from their mentors.”

The Salk Scholarship provides a stipend of $8,000 per scholar, to be appropriated over three or four years of medical studies, to help defray medical school costs. Salk Scholars also receive achievement citations and diagnostic kits that include an otoscope and ophthalmoscope.  The scholarships will be presented at a ceremony Wednesday, May 11, in the William and Anita Newman Conference Center at Baruch College

Dr. Jonas Salk, a 1934 graduate of City College, developed the polio vaccine in 1955.  He turned down a ticker-tape parade in honor of his discovery, asking that the money be used for scholarships instead.  New York City provided initial funding for the Salk Scholarships in 1955.

Ms. Ayeni, Ms. Otazo and Mr. Usani all were inspired to study medicine or biology by experiences in which disease threatened or claimed the life of a loved one.  After graduation, Ms. Ayeni and Mr. Usani plan to attend Yale University School of Medicine, and Ms. Otazo will attend Baylor University School of Medicine.  Brief profiles of the students follow:

Deborah Ayeni

A native of Nigeria who came to the United States in 2006, Deborah is a biochemistry major with a minor in math who will graduate in June.  Her interest in biomedical research, with a focus on cancer pharmacology, stems from the loss of her grandmother to cancer.  

Her research project, under the guidance of Professor Barbara Zajc, involved use of Julia Kocienski Olefination to synthesize fluorinated alkenes, which are versatile synthetic intermediates in fields such as pharmaceuticals and agrochemicals.  “Working in Professor Zajc’s lab gave me a chance to think about problems and come up with solutions,” she said.  “It helped me to grow as a researcher.”

Ms. Ayeni, who now lives in East New York and will begin work toward a PhD in pharmacology at Yale University School of Medicine, plans to become a researcher who designs novel agents to treat cancer and works with pharmaceutical companies to bring drugs to developing countries.  “I am eager to study and understand molecular mechanisms used by tumor cells to survive and proliferate,” she says. “This will permit the development of approaches to undermine these mechanisms.”

At CCNY, Ms. Ayeni served as treasurer of the Baskerville Chemical Society.  She received the Eber Scholarship, Zitrin Scholarship, Bernard Levine Scholarship, City College Black Alumni Scholarship and Ernest Borek Scholarship. A member of the Chi Alpha Epsilon National Honor Society and the Golden Key National Honor Society, she earned a second-place award when she presented her work at the New York CSTEP Student Statewide Conference.  She is also a City College and MARC (Minority Access to Research Careers) Fellow, a member of the City College gospel choir and a passionate mentor and tutor who enjoys exploring new cultures and societies.

Maria Otazo

A native Texan, Ms. Otazo, who is receiving a BS in biology and earned her bachelor’s in 2009, initially came to New York to study art at the School of Visual Arts.  However, after her brother got sick and she witnessed the compassionate care he received from his doctors and nurses, she “decided to put aside art and work for a higher good.”

She transferred to CCNY, where she changed her major to biology and followed her passion for genetics by working in the lab of Professor Shubha Govind. Her research project involves the evolutionarily conserved Notch pathway, which has been implicated in several types of cancer in humans, specifically the role of Notch pathway components in hematopoiesis within the fruit fly model system. “This work would be informative and potentially applicable to mammalian systems and to cancer models,” she said.

At City College, Ms. Otazo received the 2009 Professor Joseph Grossfield Award, and was on the Dean’s List for three years.  She has served as an Organic Chemistry workshop leader and an adjunct lecturer for General Biology and Introduction to Genetics.  After earning her master’s, she will return to the Lone Star State to study medicine at Baylor College of Medicine.  Her interests include painting, drawing, playing classical piano and reading about ethnobotany.

Joshua Usani
Mr. Usani is also a native of Nigeria.  Watching his mother, a registered nurse, and her colleagues administer polio vaccines first sparked his interest in medicine.  After seeing a doctor save a life, “I resolved that if I could touch people’s lives in this very basic, yet powerful way, the satisfaction I would receive would justify all the challenges associated with the pursuit of a medical career,” he said.

As a biology major, Mr. Usani works in City College’s molecular immunology research lab under the direction of Professor Jerry Guyden.  He is seeking to understand how the immune system attacks the body in autoimmune diseases and to develop treatments. In his project, he used a confocal microscope to identify the distribution of lysosomes in specialized epithelial cells in the thymus.  These thymic nurse cells are crucial in T-cell development.

A resident of the Bronx who once worked at a McDonalds restaurant in Harlem, Mr. Usani has been selected valedictorian of The City College of New York Class of 2011. After graduation, he will study medicine at Yale University School of Medicine.  

At CCNY, he won a scientific award at the 2009 CSTEP Conference and the Edmund Baermann and Meyer & Gloria Fishman awards.  He also served as a chemistry workshop leader and is a member of the Golden Key International Honor Society and Phi Eta Sigma.  He likes to play basketball, piano and soccer and is interested in computer programming.



Ellis Simon
p: 212.650.6460