Published November 22, 2019
When Cesar Ramirez applied for the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP) Summer Research Internship Program, he knew it would be a good opportunity to conduct research, as well as a valuable resume builder.
Ramirez, a junior biomedical engineering major, simply saw it as the next logical step towards a successful and stable career, which he’s been building towards since immigrating to the United States at age 10. What Ramirez did not bargain for in the summer of 2019 was a mentorship that would change how he looks at the world, altering the course of his life.
“While I have always been interested in research, as a child, I could have never imagined that I could become a scientist like the ones I read about in the news – until now,” says Ramirez. “Dr. Sarkar has been able to awaken an ambition deemed impossible from the child within me.”
It was for this life-changing impact that Ramirez’s LSAMP program mentor, Debanjan Sarkar, a research associate professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, won the Mr. Miyagi Award. Named for the loveable martial arts teacher in the 1984 film “The Karate Kid,” this annual award recognizes a faculty member for their above-and-beyond mentorship.
“He’s not only passionate and driven about his research but he genuinely cares about making a positive impact on his students,” says Ramirez. “Dr. Sarkar was constantly pushing me to think as a researcher – to apply questions in a way that will further help me and others.”
During the summer of 2019, Sarkar, a research associate professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, mentored Ramirez as he carried out a research project of his choice, culminating in a presentation at the UB Undergraduate Research Conference. This is the heart of the 10-week LSAMP National Science Foundation summer internship, which endeavors to prepare talented minority students in STEM disciplines for graduate school and the workforce.
"Dr. Sarkar is certainly deserving of this award. He has been very committed to providing opportunities to students in his lab, and mentoring them so that they achieve their full potential. It is great to see Debanjan be recognized for his effort," says Albert Titus, professor and chair of the Department of Biomedical Engineering.
Ramirez was introduced to Sarkar when he took his Applied Medical and Engineering Biology class in the spring semester of 2019. He was struck by Sarkar’s patience and flexibility as a professor, particularly his willingness and ability to explain things as many times and in many ways as necessary to meet the needs of his students – qualities that were only magnified when he started working one-on-one with Sarkar over the summer. “He’s really good at taking complicated ideas and simplifying them to make them understandable.”
Ramirez’s project was “The Effects of Electrostatic Interactions on Colloid Particle Aggregation.” A colloidal substance is composed of particles of varying sizes, suspended in a matrix. A colloidal substance is stable because the particles feel an electrostatic force separating them, similar to magnets being repelled by magnetic force. When this repulsion is disrupted, the particles collide, attaching to one another and forming groups, or aggregates.
Ramirez’s research specifically studies the connection between the speed at which this repulsion is blocked and the formation of these aggregates, which take on different microstructural organizations. The researchers hope to create more control over the properties that affect the way that cells grow, ultimately being used to improve tissue engineering.
“I know that Dr. Sarkar is a great mentor because he could see potential in me that I could not,” says Ramirez.
He encouraged Ramirez to believe in himself to interpret his findings, stressing the importance of the process rather than the outcome.
“I learned to study but not to expect a certain result,” Ramirez says. “Just because something turned out a different way than you wanted or expected, it doesn’t mean it’s wrong.”
“It has been a tremendous opportunity and experience to mentor the LSAMP students over the years, and as I mentor them, I continuously learn and enrich myself,” says Sarkar, who has been taking part in the program for three years. “This year, it was great working with Cesar. He is one of the brightest undergraduate students I have mentored and am continuing to mentor. His motivation, passion, consistency, ability to learn (with a disciplined approach), and commitment have really been exemplary. He has all the qualities and potential to excel brilliantly in the future.”
“Faculty and their research are the very backbone of our program and we are so appreciative of each and every mentor,” says Letitia Thomas, director of STEM Diversity Programs. ”We give the students a chance to thank their mentors by nominating them for the Mr. Miyagi award. And then, based on the nomination letters, we choose the person who we believe best embodies the qualities of a strong mentor – patient, nurturing, a good listener, engaged, passionate, good teacher.”
The LSAMP program has been developing students at UB since 1996. In addition to their research, throughout the summer the program’s 12 students participated in a Research Methods seminar, weekly “soft skills” workshops, community service, and outings to companies and organizations in STEM industries.
Ramirez is also grateful for the unanticipated outcome of meeting and bonding with other minority students in STEM from across the university. “The program created a genuine community and support network,” he says. “Everyone’s smart, everyone’s doing research they’re excited about and as soon as you bring their work up, everyone turns into a scientist.”
Ramirez is continuing to work on his research with Sarkar in the Regenerative Medicine in Biomaterials group. While Ramirez has been drawn to the medical field for a long time, his thinking has expanded to beyond being a medical doctor. Like Sarkar, he says wants to work as a researcher in the biomedical field, using his passion and skill to improve medicine. “I want to help and inspire other people as Dr. Sarkar has inspired me.”
Whatever the future holds, one thing is certain for Cesar: “My mentor has taught me that our journey of life does not differ much from research. In both, we are looking for a solution, an explanation to improve our existence. I have learned that this is why research is the journey that I must chase, and by looking for answers to questions that haunt me, I can simultaneously help others.”