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Scenes from The University of Rhode Island

Commencement 2014: Graduate goes from hardship to fearless scientist

Media Contact: Janet Kerlin, 401-874-2116

KINGSTON, R.I. – May 2, 2014 – A bright teenager was falling behind in her classwork, challenged by working 50 hours a week at a restaurant to support her family. “I didn’t think I would ever make it this far,” Marilyn Le said, a few weeks before graduating with bachelor’s degrees in biochemistry and biotechnology from the University of Rhode Island.

“Growing up on the South Side of Providence, Le’s journey from the inner city to URI began when she was a senior at Classical High School. She met a visiting speaker, the co-coordinator of URI’s biotechnology program, Edward Bozzi.

The assistant clinical chemistry professor visits Classical High School, his alma mater, each fall to talk with seniors. “I present our biotechnology degree program at URI's Providence Campus in an effort to recruit one or two students into our program,” Bozzi says.

The professor’s talk intrigued the 2009 Classical graduate, whose parents had left war-torn Vietnam for a better life. Attending a university was a goal she’d had since she was 8 years old, when she joined the College Crusade of Rhode Island, a program for economically disadvantaged Providence Public School students that provides a place to do homework, a mentor after school, and college preparation workshops leading to scholarships.

“A great program,” Le says. “I owe a lot to it.”

Le enrolled in URI’s biotechnology program, and during her first year, her father died.

“I didn’t know if I could go on,” she said. “But instead of weakening me, it made me stronger.”

For overcoming hardships on her way to a science career, Le was presented with the Polly Matzinger Fearless Scientist Award in October 2013 by the Institute for Immunology and Informatics at URI’s Feinstein Providence campus. She also received the University’s Narasimhan Biotechnology Scholarship.

At URI, she works as a lab assistant in the Biotechnology Center in Providence, where she helps coordinate the Amgen Biotech Experience, an education program that loans a kit of research-grade equipment and supplies to students and teachers to conduct lab activities involving cloning, crime scene DNA and bacteria. In addition, Le assists Bozzi during chemistry laboratory sections with new biotechnology students. Le expressed a desire to attend Brown University for her graduate studies. An advisor told her she would not be accepted into the Ivy League school unless she made herself into a better applicant. Le stayed an extra year at URI, continuously conducting research as well as taking advanced coursework to enhance her understanding of the field.

She also took part in a summer research program sponsored by Brown and The Leadership Alliance, a graduate school preparatory program that aims to “develop underrepresented students into outstanding leaders and role models in academia, business and the public sector,” while emphasizing the pursuit of scholarship.

“They gave us a research project. We had excellent one-on-one mentoring and met with some of the best researchers in the field who gave us guidance on what it meant to be a Ph.D. scholar,” Le said.

“This program really inspired me and gave me the confidence to continue my journey as an aspiring researcher.”

Le starts graduate school in July at Brown where she will be studying molecular pharmacology and physiology. At some point, Bozzi and Le recognized that she was following in the professor’s footsteps. Bozzi says he is rejoicing in her successes.

“We both had immigrant fathers, mine from Italy, Marilyn's from Vietnam. We both grew up in tenement houses in inner city Providence neighborhoods. Attending Classical for both of us was life changing. When Marilyn graduates in May, we both will have gone from Classical High School to bachelor’s of science degrees at URI. Marilyn will attend Brown University in a Ph.D. program, just as I did, only 46 years earlier.”

Pictured above
Marilyn Le, URI Class of 2014.
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