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Gene-busting over Gang-banging
NIAID's Cabral Receives Soros Fellowship

By Matthew Holder

Erik Cabral is a living testament of the American dream. The son of Mexican immigrants who once worked as migrant farmers, Cabral — now a pre-doctoral researcher in NIAID's Laboratory of Clinical Investigation — recently received a coveted Soros fellowship for his first 2 years of medical school at Stanford University.

Just a few years ago, Cabral didn't dream of going to college, much less conducting research at NIH or pursuing a medical degree. During his freshman year of high school in downtown San Jose, Calif., he failed so many classes that he stopped going to school. Knowing that his parents came to the United States in order to provide him with more opportunities, he returned to school the following year.

Erik Cabral
This time he studied late into the night each day. His motivation was simple. Studying kept him away from street gangs that killed one of his friends. "I sheltered myself in books," Cabral said. "It was the one way for me to escape the negativity in my neighborhood."

The studying paid off. He stayed away from the gangs, and he started making A's and B's. In fact, his high grades qualified him for the Stanford Medical Youth Science Program, a 5-week residential summer program that introduces disadvantaged students to college-level science courses, as well as role models and mentors.

The experience changed his life. Before, his only goal was graduating high school. It had never occurred to him to continue his education beyond that point. As Cabral's grades continued to improve, he began taking college courses at San Jose State in addition to his high school courses, and he participated in several other college preparatory programs the following summer. For one of those programs — the National Hispanic Youth Initiative (NHYI) — he traveled to Washington, D.C., where he met Marc Horowitz, director of NIH's Office of Loan Repayment and Scholarship, and learned about NIH for the first time.

Horowitz spoke at the NHYI to tell students about a new program — NIH's Undergraduate Scholarship Program for Students from Disadvantaged Backgrounds (UGSP). Cabral spoke with Horowitz and got on a mailing list to receive information on the program once it was fully implemented.

During his senior year, Cabral successfully applied to Stanford University, and during the summer, he applied and was accepted to the UGSP, becoming part of the first cohort of the new NIH program, which provides disadvantaged students with scholarship funding, as well as research internships and mentors at NIH.

During his summer internships at NIH, Cabral trained with Dr. Stephen Straus, chief of NIAID's Laboratory of Clinical Investigation, and Dr. Rona LeBlanc. During his two summers in the lab he studied the role of interleukin 6, an immune system protein, in the pathogenesis of herpes simplex type 1. The study aimed to learn more about the relationship between the immune system and the reactivation of latent viruses. Cabral co-authored a publication on the work in the Journal of Virology (October 1999) and expanded on the study to write his honor's thesis at Stanford.

After graduating from Stanford in 2000, Cabral returned to the Laboratory of Clinical Investigation to work with Drs. Adriana Marques and Roland Martin to study gene expression patterns in Lyme disease patients. The lab is focusing on determining if there is a genetic explanation as to why some individuals fully recover from Lyme disease while others experience continuing symptoms.

During his two summers in the lab at NIH, Cabral studied the role of interleukin 6; later, he co-authored a publication on the work in the Journal of Virology (October 1999) and expanded on the study to write his honor's thesis at Stanford.

Later this summer, Cabral will complete his project and return to Stanford in pursuit of his medical degree with support from the Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowship for New Americans.

Since being established in 1997, the Soros fellowships have quickly become one of the most highly recognized and sought-after awards for graduate study in the United States. Nearly 1,100 applicants competed for 30 fellowships this year, which provide a $20,000 stipend and half-tuition for 2 years of graduate study.

The UGSP is unique in its combination of intensive research training and mentoring with scholarship support. Cabral, along with the other UGSP scholars, has demonstrated the potential for such programs to create a pipeline for students from disadvantaged backgrounds to enter biomedical research fields and to increase diversity in the intramural research program.

Cabral is actually the second UGSP scholar to receive a Soros fellowship. Last year, Jose Vargas, also a 1996 UGSP scholar, received a Soros fellowship to support his medical degree at Harvard University. Vargas also received a Rhodes scholarship in 1999 and completed his Ph.D. in functional genetics at Oxford this winter.

Three UGSP scholars have been honored with Fulbright fellowships: Brandon Ogbunugafor (currently conducting research at the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology in Nairobi, Kenya), Kirk Pak (now studying at Oxford) and Beata Ziolkowska (currently at Harvard Medical School).

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