After fleeing Zaire as a refugee, in 1996, Espoir Kyubwa struggled to learn English at his new elementary school in California. Many subjects were difficult, but he found comfort in science class because it relied on a language he already knew: math.
Now 24, Kyubwa still has the love of science he discovered as a child. He will be using his HHMI graduate student research fellowship to study how the body repair’s itself, as part of an M.D./Ph.D. program at the University of California, San Diego.
Kyubwa is one of nine students chosen this year to receive HHMI’s Gilliam Fellowships for Advanced Study. The fellowships are aimed at increasing the diversity of college and university faculty by supporting Ph.D. research by students from groups traditionally underrepresented in the sciences. “Our goal is to train tomorrow’s leaders in science and education,” says William Galey, director of HHMI’s graduate and medical education program.
This year, HHMI doubled the number of the Gilliam fellowships available after realizing that they had more top applicants than they could fund. “The talent pool is amazingly deep. We’ve seen spectacular students who go on to great schools and are very promising,” says Sean B. Carroll, HHMI’s vice president for science education. “We think it is really important to support these outstanding students.”
Gilliam fellows are chosen from among students who have participated in HHMI’s Exceptional Research Opportunities Program (EXROP), which places undergraduate students from minority or other groups traditionally underrepresented in the sciences in the labs of HHMI investigators and professors. The expansion of the program will allow up to 10 students each year to become Gilliam Fellows, an increase from five in previous years.
That means more support for doctoral students like Gloria Tavera, who is starting an M.D./Ph.D. program this fall to study infectious diseases after spending a year doing research on dengue fever on a Fulbright fellowship in Mexico. And for students like Sandra Jones, who was inspired to study neuroscience after hearing a seminar on the science of anesthesia.
Among the new Gilliam fellows, five have graduated from college or will graduate this year and are applying to graduate school. The remaining four awardees are in their first year of Ph.D. or M.D./Ph.D. programs.
As for Kyubwa, he hopes to eventually go back to his native country, now called the Democratic Republic of Congo, where he can use his doctoral research on medical trauma and injury to help heal the strife-torn country.
“I have a lot of aspirations to develop something, maybe a teaching hospital or something along those lines,” he says. “I’m really interested in helping.”