When Cordova Middle School (now renamed Judge Armendariz Sr. Middle School) student Jose Ibarra attended the summer Developing Research and Early Aspirations for Medical Scholars or DREAMS program nearly a decade ago, he decided then and there that he wanted to become a doctor. Every day after the program, he shared the information and topics he had learned that day with his family members—including how to stay healthy and what not to eat to avoid obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.
DREAMS was an educational awareness outreach program for 5th and 6th graders in the El Paso Independent School District’s Gifted and Talented Program in partnership with Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center at El Paso’s Hispanic Center of Excellence (HCOE).
This summer, Ibarra, son of Imelda Ibarra, lead custodian housekeeping at TTUHSC El Paso, is attending the 10-week the Summer Accelerated Biomedical Research (SABR) Program at the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences (GSBS) TTUHSC El Paso branch school as a student intern.
The GSBS at El Paso offers students the opportunity to work with TTUHSC faculty involved in relevant, interesting research areas with state-of-the art labs and equipment. According to Jazmin Carrera-Blas, in the Office of the Associate Dean for Research, the SABR program is an excellent educational opportunity, with a commitment to fostering an intern’s desire for science and research. “Our program is intended for undergraduate students or current graduates (with no graduate course-work) who wish to gain more research experience before entering graduate school,” she said.
SABR interns work a full-time schedule, which can be a first-time experience for many said Carrera-Blas. During the 10-week-program interns are exposed to the life of a graduate student. They also learn to become more independent and self-autonomous. Interns are guided by faculty, graduate students, other lab staff members, as well as GSBS administration. The program is a paid internship after the student completes the program.
Nineteen-year-old Ibarra attended Maxine Silva Magnet Health High School at Jefferson across the street from the Texas Tech/UMC campus and as well as the dual credit program at El Paso Community College during his junior and senior year, and the summer after his senior year. He graduated with a certification in vocational nursing. He is considering molecular biology as his major and actuary mathematics as a minor. Ibarra is technically a graduate vocational nurse, but needs to take his state licensure exam to become an LVN.
Most who apply for the SABR program are either sophomores or seniors not students finishing their freshman year like Ibarra who is currently enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania, although applicants are accepted into SABR on a case by case basis.
He is on multiple scholarships and a school grant, however, he and his parents are still responsible for paying a little over $1,000 a month for him to attend. He is hoping to learn more about the medical field as it relates to research through the SABR program, as well as help out with some of his college expenses in the fall.
Ibarra is under the direct supervision of Olof Sundin, Ph.D., who is studying eye genetics. “It’s a great program to help wet your feet in research,” said Ibarra who hopes to go into the medical field in the future. “My ultimate goal is to concentrate in cardiology or endocrinology.”
“While in our laboratory,” said Dr. Sundin, “Jose has been working to understand the role of MFRP, a protein made by a thin layer of cells in the eye. Inherited changes in the DNA of the MFRP gene are the cause of a rare human eye disease that affects vision and often leads to blindness. Our experiments involve studies of a special mouse strain that has a genetic defect in the mouse MFRP gene. José’s work aims to learn why mutations in this gene cause an abnormal shape and an early death of the eye’s photoreceptor cells. These are the cells that detect light, and are central to health of the eye. We hope that this work will lead to better treatments of this and other, more common, eye diseases,” he said.
“José is one of 14 students enrolled in our SABR internship program. Several of our SABR students have already gone on to graduate or medical school. For those who come from other parts of the country, the program has provided a favorable introduction to the school and El Paso. Several have chosen to stay, and enroll in our Masters of Biomedical Sciences graduate program. These students are our future, and we are proud to have José for the summer,” said Dr. Sundin.
Ibarra is proud of what he calls humble beginnings. He was born in Chicago, but his family moved to El Paso before he was a year old so he considers himself a native El Pasoan. He has an older sister who just graduated from UTEP with a bachelor’s in psychology and also participated in the SABR program last summer. As a first generation American and with that a first generation college student, Ibarra is excited about his future.
“Going to Silva, being in the nursing program that I was in, going to a research-heavy institution, and participating in the SABR program has opened my eyes into the many, many possibilities the sciences and the health care field have available, not just medicine,” said Ibarra.
He said that although becoming a clinician is his ultimate goal, especially an MD/PhD program as a professor at a research institution, he thinks all of the opportunities El Paso offers will help improve the health of the community.
Rene Andre, coordinator for the Office for Promotion of Community Educational Achievement (OPCEA) and school liaison in the Office of Admissions, TTUHSC El Paso Paul L. Foster School of Medicine, said DREAMS is an important stepping stone for students to realize their dreams.
Andre just started his summer high school medical camps this week and currently has two high school students that were in the DREAMS program. “As part of the pipeline, I still track students,” he said.
“If it hadn’t been for all of the great windows of success the community has offered me,” said Ibarra, “I don’t know what I would have chosen.”
Although GSBS is no longer taking applicants for this summer’s SABR program, for information on applying for next year’s program, applicants may email Jazmin Carrera-Blas, firstname.lastname@example.org.