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Summer Student Aims High, Plans to Give Back to her Community

By Colleen Chandler
September 2005

right to left, Karla Hernandez-Cruz, Retha Newbold, and Lisa Banks
Karla Hernandez-Cruz, right, with Retha Newbold, center, and Lisa Banks, left. (Photo by Colleen Chandler)

Karla Hernandez-Cruz knew for a long time what she wanted to do. When asked, she does not hesitate: "Go to medical school and get a Ph.D."

She intends to be a pediatric endocrinologist. The 22-year-old is a senior, majoring in biology at the Universidad Metropolitana in Puerto Rico.

Hernandez-Cruz started building a foundation in biomedical research when she did her first internship at the University of Rochester in 2003. That was the summer following her freshman year. In 2004, her sponsor at the Universidad Metropolitana told her about a program that would allow her to come to NIEHS to work. When she heard the term 'environmental health sciences,' she said, she thought of field biology and collecting water samples. But she applied anyway. With help from Gerard Roman in the Equal Employment Office, she got a foot in the door. After a phone interview, she landed a position for the summer 2004 in Retha Newbold's lab. She said she was pleasantly surprised to discover what NIEHS does

Last year, Hernandez-Cruz learned lab techniques used to study reproductive toxicity and endocrine disorders. She presented posters and won awards from the Endocrine Society and the Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans last year. She will present a poster again at the Endocrine Society at the end of September.

As a kid, Hernandez-Cruz spent five summers at a camp in Puerto Rico run by the Comite de Educación y Bienestar para Niños y Adolescentes con Diabetes. There, kids with type 1 diabetes learned how to control their sugar and measure insulin. The also learned to accept their condition. The director of that camp made a deep impression on the young Hernandez-Cruz, who now also volunteers her time to work with kids who have type 1 diabetes.

Hernandez-Cruz is the first person in her family to go to a university, and the first person in her household to graduate from high school. She has a strong sense of patriotism, vowing to do all she can to improve public health in her homeland.

The Universidad Metropolitana participates in the Model Institute of Excellence Program funded by the National Science Foundation. NIEHS provides assistance through its discretionary funds and gives opportunities for minorities at the university as well.

Hernandez-Cruz is something of a pet project for Newbold, who makes a point of recruiting women into science careers. Lisa Banks, a biologist in Newbold's lab, is also from Puerto Rico and she makes a point of recruiting Hispanics. Banks, whose first language was Spanish, quickly became a mentor and sometimes translator for Hernandez-Cruz. Newbold said women and Hispanics are seriously underrepresented in science. Hernandez-Cruz said Banks is like her "mentor, sister, mom, and friend." Newbold agrees. Part of a researcher's responsibility when sponsoring a fellow is to look after them, she said.

"She is really dedicated to the project, and to science," Newbold said. She marvels at how Hernandez-Cruz has matured since last years. Newbold and Banks are trying to figure out a way to being Hernandez-Cruz back next year as well.

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