Senior Completes First Half of UNCF/ Merck Science Fellowship

September 14, 2010

Senior Completes First Half of UNCF/ Merck Science FellowshipPictured: Student Daniel Salahuddin, right, with Assistant Professor Leo Ondrovic in a laboratory in Lewis Hall.

When Daniel Salahuddin ’11 entered Saint Leo University with the goal of becoming a doctor, he didn’t just earn good grades and hope for the best. He began looking for projects to work on each academic year and every summer to make himself a stronger pre-med student.

The senior is already reaping benefits from that strategy.

Salahuddin was selected earlier this year as a fellow for the prestigious UNCF/Merck Science Initiative. The partnership between the United Negro College Fund and Merck, the well-known pharmaceutical company, encourages young people to pursue careers in science by giving African-American students summer internship opportunities at Merck Research Laboratories. Undergraduates are placed in two summer internships of 10 weeks each, and are put to work on original research in one of three locations.

In Salahuddin’s case, at 20 years old, he was able to work on developments aimed at improving detection and treatment of cardiovascular disease at the Merck facility in Rahway, N.J. “It has given me additional exposure in a cutting-edge research laboratory where I really get an inside perspective into how drugs are developed,” he said. Not to mention the opportunity to network with others in the field, and the chance to apply for a scholarship. Only 15 undergraduates nationally were selected for the program in 2010.

The senior will return for his second internship at Merck in the summer of 2011, following his graduation in late April with a Bachelor of Science degree in biology and an Honors Program medallion. Salahuddin’s accomplishments are striking, but not surprising, given the sustained commitment he has shown.

“Daniel has done what I have told all the pre-med students to do,” said Leo Ondrovic, Ph.D., the senior’s academic and Honors Program advisor, and assistant professor of biology and physics. What sets Salahuddin apart from his peers, Ondrovic said, is his initiative in asking to work on academic projects with faculty mentors, and in seeking volunteer and internship opportunities. The senior has always done much of the legwork on his own, rather than waiting for opportunities to be created for him. “He knew what he wanted to do when he got here,” Ondrovic said. “He’s on the right track.”

Honors Program Projects

It is literally true that Salahuddin was already thinking about how he would navigate the competition for admission to medical school while he was a senior in high school in Bradenton, Florida, and considering his options for college. He took special note when he read online that Saint Leo offers talented students the opportunity to work with faculty members on individual research projects and distinguish themselves. “I liked what I saw,” he recalled.

By the time Salahuddin was a freshman, he was already working under Ondrovics’s guidance on the beginnings of a medical study based on campus. Over the course of about a year, he completed a review of the literature on the topic, the effect of diet and exercise on cardiovascular health, and obtained the approvals needed for studies with human subjects. In his sophomore year, though he “hit a pitfall” that many working scientists encounter. He couldn’t find enough volunteers, so he had to close the study. Still, the effort was fruitful as he learned first-hand about the foundations of the research process.

And he had other things to look forward to, as he had begun working on other meaningful projects in his first two years of university study. As a freshman he started volunteering at the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center & Research Institute, as well. He also began traveling once a year to Haiti, where his parents are from. (The trips were not connected with any university programs.) During the summer following his freshman year, Salahuddin participated in the Life Sciences Summer Undergraduate Research Program at the University of Minnesota for undergraduates in the life sciences. That put him to work in a neuroscience facility, doing his own experiments, and meeting other scientists and mentors in the field. After his sophomore year, he spent the summer volunteering at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

Pivotal Year

When Salahuddin returned as a junior, he resumed volunteering at the Moffitt Cancer Center and continued seeking good advice from faculty, mentors, and family. He began to see more places where he could develop his skills and be of service. The idea for a new campus-based project on health and tobacco addiction began to crystallize in his mind. He applied for the UNCF/Merck Science Initiative on the advice of people he had met through networking with a mentor. Then in January, 2010, Haiti was hit by the now-famous earthquake that left the nation with incredible devastation and widespread injuries. Salahuddin traveled there on his own during the March semester break to work as a volunteer medical translator. English-speaking doctors needed someone who could speak Creole, as Salahuddin does, so that they could communicate with their patients. It was challenging, but he managed. “I told myself that I can’t go over there and be a bleeding heart because it will prevent me from making the difference that I know I can make.” After that, and after completing his spring semester, he spent the summer at Merck.

Now that Salahuddin is back for his senior year, he is again doing research. He is working under Ondrovic’s guidance on his Senior Honors Project, which is drawn from the idea he had last year for a campus public-health initiative aimed at tobacco use. The project will be ready for presentation at Academic Excellence Day in April. And Salahuddin is considering the next big step: where to apply to medical school.

His advisor is confident. “There is a momentum to this success,” Ondrovic said. “He is going to go on to do great things. That will continue.”