Science as a Second Language
Teen tackles English, scores a Rhodes Scholarship. Grants in Action
Eight years ago, he just wanted to go home.
Vargas remembers boys on either side of him in his eighth grade classroom in Gaithersburg, Md., chattering away in a language he did not understand. Accustomed to getting good grades in the Dominican Republic, the youngster watched his grades slip as he struggled with English.
"I'm going back to the Dominican Republic. I can live with my uncle," he told his mother and father.
Elida Vargas-Carrasco was appalled. She and her husband, Danilo, had moved to the United States to enhance their bright young son's educational opportunities. But Vargas-Carrasco is an educational psychologist, so she suppressed her natural parental reaction. "It's your decision," she told the distraught boy. "Just remember, you aren't going to get to medical school that way."
As far back as he can remember, Vargas was drawn to medical inquiry. Once when he was very young, he even dissected his sister's teddy bear. As he watched his mother folding newspapers and his father—once the director of external resources for the Dominican Republic—sweeping floors because they lacked the English needed to work in their professions, the boy weighed their sacrifice and his dreams against the misery of the moment.
The scales tipped in favor of the future. Before he entered high school, young Vargas had made an extraordinarily grown-up decision. "I am going to do whatever it takes to succeed."
What it took was another year of struggle in English As A Second Language classes, begging teachers for extra tutoring, toting a dictionary wherever he went. By his sophomore year at Magruder High School in Rockville, Md., Vargas had raised his grades enough to take honors geometry. By the time he was a senior, he had a 3.93 grade point average. He had also been chosen for a competitive HHMI internship at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
"Man, I'm going to get to do what I love and get paid for it too!" Vargas remembers thinking.
He spent that summer at the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research in immunologist Nancy McCartney-Francis' lab in the Oral Infection and Immunity Branch. Under her guidance, he explored the role of transforming growth factor-beta (TGF-b) in inflammation. Mice in whom the gene for TGF-b has been deleted die of an overwhelming autoimmune response soon after weaning. Vargas was able to identify a particular population of immune cells, phagocytic macrophages, as major players in this lethal process.
Vargas was invited back to McCartney-Francis' lab for a second summer of research in 1996. This time he used more sophisticated molecular and cellular techniques to identify the molecules known as cytokines as responsible for the massive inflammation that causes the TGF-b knockout mice to die.
Vargas submitted an abstract of his research to the American Medical Student Association (AMSA). It was accepted, and he presented it at the 1997 AMSA National Conference. Although the competing presentations were by medical school students, the college sophomore's work was ranked eighth among 85.
"Jose's studies helped define TGF-b as a key regulator of inflammation," said McCartney-Francis. "He asked the right questions and got excited about his results. He has the perfect combination of qualities to become both a physician and a researcher—his life's dream."
After he earns a doctorate in genetics at Oxford, Vargas plans to attend medical school. "I still want to treat patients, but I also want to do research," he says. "I want to use the gifts of being bilingual and bicultural to help Hispanic people in this country get better medical care and to use my passion for research to help find answers to some of their medical problems."
He also hopes to serve as a role model for Hispanic youngsters, as scientists and physicians at NIH and elsewhere have done for him. "I want them to look at me and know they can succeed too," he said.
His lab experiences not only whetted Vargas' appetite for medical research; they also prepared him to become one of only 13 college students nationwide selected to receive an NIH Undergraduate Scholarship in 1997. This covered tuition for the remainder of Vargas' years at Loyola, in exchange for summers of work in the research lab of Juan Bonifacino, chief of the Cell Biology and Metabolism Branch of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.
David Rivers, assistant professor of biology at Loyola, met Vargas midway through his sophomore year, in the comparative physiology class that Rivers teaches.
"He expressed concern because English wasn't his native language, but it wasn't long before he was asking questions I had to struggle to answer," Rivers recalls. "And he immediately started writing some of the best papers in the class."
When Vargas declared a biology major, Rivers became his academic advisor. This year, the aspiring young medical scientist is taking an honors research elective in Rivers' lab, working with him to try to purify the cytotoxic proteins in the venom of a parasitic wasp.
"I've had a lot of outstanding students," Rivers remarks, "but no one quite like Jose. He's been a tremendous role model for the other students. Just as he challenged me to go back and learn more about my own field, he challenges them. He's shown them what is possible."