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Building Bridges

Summer research program reaches out to American Indian students in community colleges.
by Rocio Rueda

NMSU faculty member Michele Nishiguchi

Michele Nishiguchi is among the NMSU faculty members who spend their summers mentoring community college students in the BRIDGE Program.

As a student at Diné College in Shiprock, New Mexico, Tikytus McKenzie worked in many career fields before finding a major he wanted to pursue. This year, he will receive his associate’s degree in computer science and plans to finish an undergraduate degree in computer science at NMSU, with an emphasis on the growing field of bioinformatics.

What helped set McKenzie on his career path was a program at NMSU called the BRIDGE Program to American Indian Students in Community Colleges. The program works with American Indian students from regional community colleges, including Diné College branches in Shiprock and Tsaile, Arizona; Doña Ana Branch Community College; San Juan College in Farmington and the University of New Mexico branch in Gallup. The goal of the program is to get students interested in the different biomedical fields and give them the opportunity to gain research experience through 10-week summer internships at NMSU.

A student at Doña Ana Branch Community College Margie Weaver

The BRIDGE Program at NMSU helped interest Margie Weaver, a student at Doña Ana Branch Community College, in pursuing a degree in biology, and possibly medicine.
She has spent the past two summers conducting research with biology professor Michele Nishigushi.S

The BRIDGE Program began in 1992 and has placed 163 American Indian students in internships. Sixty percent of program participants have transferred to four-year universities to complete bachelor’s degrees in scientific disciplines. Among those students who transferred, 47 percent completed their bachelor’s degrees within 10 semesters, a percentage rate two times greater than the national average for the completion of bachelor of science degrees for American Indian students.

Two former BRIDGE participants have completed doctoral degrees and five others are working toward their doctoral degrees at NMSU. Eleven participants have received master’s degrees.

In February 2004, the program was awarded a three-year, $600,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health, marking 14 years of continuous funding.

In the BRIDGE Program, students work with faculty mentors on research in disciplines such as biochemistry, biology, molecular biology, bioinformatics, chemistry, plant sciences, nutrition and animal science.

“The faculty mentors help the students establish a home base and become comfortable here,” says Glenn Kuehn, a biochemistry professor who serves as director of the program.

During their internships, students prepare a poster of their research for a presentation at a scientific conference. In 2004, 19 students participated in the program and presented their research at the annual meeting of the Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS).

McKenzie participated in the BRIDGE program for two years. In 2003, he worked with Desh Ranjan, head of the Department of Computer Science, on fractal figures and chaos theory. The poster he presented at the annual SACNAS conference won him a $250 award.

In 2004, McKenzie worked with Jonathan Cook, an associate professor of computer science.

“I learned a lot from Dr. Ranjan,” he says. “He’s really able to explain in detail what programs do. It’s the same with Dr. Cook.”

During his 2004 internship, McKenzie developed a program for people who have an interest in visualizing DNA sequences. His program, which is an applet that can be used by any computer through a Web browser, color codes and displays DNA strands. The program could be expanded to work with other sequence information, and thus be usable by biochemists working with proteins.

“That’s how computer programs work,” McKenzie says. “They start out small and you keep adding until you have a complex program.”

2004 also marked the second year in the BRIDGE program for Margie Weaver, a sophomore at Doña Ana Branch Community College. She has worked with biology professor Michele Nishiguchi and her graduate students on their studies of Vibrio fischeri, a luminescent bacteria that lives in the light organ of nocturnal bobtail squid. Nishiguchi has been studying how V. fischeri adapt to new environments and evolve over many generations.

“BRIDGE is a really good program,” Weaver says. “It gave me direction and lab experience. I really like lab work now.”

Weaver plans to transfer to NMSU and earn her bachelor’s degree in biology. “I think after getting my master’s degree, I could transfer to another school to study medicine,” she says.

Jonathan Clyde, a student from the University of New Mexico branch in Gallup, also worked on the V. fischeri project with Nishiguchi. He too hopes to pursue a medical career.

“Being in this program has put me on the path to medical school,” Clyde says. “Where I’m from, students don’t get the chance to do anything like this very often and they don’t really know what’s out there for them.”

For more information: http://bridges.nmsu.edu/

Applications for the BRIDGE program are due March 30 each year.

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