Giving Back and Raising the Bar

by Hawasatu Dumbaya PhD ’18

Hawa in the Medford High School Science Hall before an SCP event. September 2015.

Hawa in the Medford High School Science Hall before an SCP event. September 2015.

I am currently a PhD candidate in the Molecular Pharmacology and Physiology program at Brown University. My research focuses on the regulation of melanin synthesis in human epidermal melanocytes, and on characterizing ultraviolet light phototransduction in human skin. Basically, I study how sun exposure causes one’s skin to tan. My path to graduate school was unexpected, but my experiences have significantly shaped me and fortified my passion to pursue a career in research and education.

One Saturday morning, during my junior year of high school, I decided to take the bus to go visit my friend. While waiting at the bust stop, in front of my house, a middle-aged woman with her dog passed near me. Making eye contact, I said “Good morning.” She replied, “Good morning, do you live in this area.” I answered, “Yes, this is my house.” as I pointed to the right. She responded, “Oh, I see. Do you go to the Vocational School?” A little confused, I answered, “I go to MHS.” which ended our conversion. After she left, I wondered why she would assume that I was at the vocational school. It was not too long after this incident that I quickly realized that expectations were set low for someone like me, a foreign minority individual. Unfortunately, this type of “assumption incident” was not the last one that I was going to experience.

I was born and raised in France, but my parents are natives of Sierra Leone. Moving to France was a great opportunity for my parents because they knew that living in a developed country could give them the chance to live a more comfortable life. My mother received the equivalent of a high school diploma, though my father never finished high school. Neither of my parents could go to college, but they understood the importance of education, which they instilled in my brother and me early on.

Following their visit to the United States, my parents decided to move again for a better life, to be closer to the Sierra Leonean community, but most importantly for better opportunities, as my mother would often say, “America is the land of opportunities.” First my father came, and, six years later, my mother, younger brother and I joined him. The idea of leaving my home country, France, to move to an unknown one was terrifying. To reassure me, my mother used to say “It’s going to be the same life, but better. The only difference will be the language.” To which my brother and I would reply “Yes, exactly, the language.” But when we arrived, this perception changed. The cars, the roads, the buildings, the people, everything appeared different and much bigger.

I came to the U.S with minimal English proficiency during my sophomore year of high school, and was placed in English Language Learners (ELL) classes. My first year in the U.S and at Medford High School (MHS) was challenging and all about adjusting to what I used to call “My American Life.” I was constantly comparing France to the U.S, from the school systems, to the food, to people’s behaviors and interactions with one another, everything. I felt lost, confused, and incompetent. With hard work and great support from all of my ELL teachers, after just one year, I transferred out of the ELL classes into the mainstream ones. Transferring into mainstream classes allowed me to not only take challenging classes, but gave me the opportunity to interact more with native-English speakers, which I believed helped my adjustment to my new life. By senior year, I embraced “My American Life.” I became involved in various school activities, such as sports, dancing, and volunteering. In addition, I was part of the National Honor Society, and taking honors classes. I took an Anatomy and Physiology course, which made me interested in health sciences, and persuaded me to major in pharmacology and toxicology at MCPHS University.

The summer of my second year at MCPHS University, I was accepted to the Dana-Farber/Harvard Cancer Center in the Continuing Umbrella Research Experience (CURE) program, which exposes underrepresented undergraduate and high school students to cancer research for 10 weeks. Through CURE, I joined Dr. Bakhos Tannous’ laboratory at Massachusetts General Hospital, where, as part of a team, I worked on testing two candidate molecules that we identified as promising cancer therapeutic agents to treat glioblastoma multiforme. This project was the “glue” of my undergraduate career because it allowed me to connect coursework to real life research. Under Dr. Tannous’ mentorship, I learned the basics of cancer biology research, and ultimately decided to pursue a PhD in biomedical sciences.

Over the years, I have developed a passion for community outreach and science education. While at MCPHS University, I seized every occasion to discuss science topics and the research that I was conducting with different audiences. Moreover, I participated in various peer leadership programs, assisting underclassmen and high school students to their transition to college by sharing nuances in culture and language, and by providing tutoring sessions to adapt to the rigors of academics. I reflected on my path and how far I have come. I honestly believe that I would not be here, if I had not had the constant support of my family, teachers, and mentors. It took a great amount of hard work, persistence, determination, and perhaps a little bit of luck for me to get to be here today. All these experiences have led me to want to give back and create a place at my former high school so other ELL students at MHS can obtain support and encouragement, reliable information on how to pursue a higher education, and tools to be successful in high school and beyond.

With the tremendous amount of help and cooperation from the ELL department and MHS administration, I implemented a volunteer-based mentoring program, the Science Career Program (SCP), whose mission is to encourage ELL high school students’ pursuits of a higher education and offer a view of various STEM careers. This program is open to all students, but geared towards ELL students because many are discouraged about the future because of language and culture barriers, gaps in former education, lack of knowledge regarding various paths to pursuing higher education, the cost of college, and passing standardized tests, etc. SCP involves monthly activities, which entail science topic seminars, information sessions, personal and professional development workshops, and panels with bilingual-bicultural students or professionals as guest speakers.

SCP students sharing their notes from an Introduction to Cancer Biology lecture during Active Learning Strategies Workshop given by invited speaker, Dr. Randi Korn. March, 2015.

SCP students sharing their notes from an Introduction to Cancer Biology lecture during Active Learning Strategies Workshop given by invited speaker, Dr. Randi Korn. March, 2015.

Now going into its second academic year, SCP is already making a difference, and has received positive feedback from both the teachers and students, such as “I like the program because you guys help me to know more about college, get into college and find myself […] This program helps many students like me learn how to get an education and care about our grades and goals.” My hopes are that SCP becomes a place where ELL students at MHS receive continuous support and encouragement for their academic capabilities, desire to succeed, but most importantly realize their potential and the opportunities available. I want each of these students to encounter a new assumption: the assumption that bar is set high for them, and that their potential is limitless. Every time a student tells me he/she does not speak English, I reply, “You don’t’ speak English yet.”  

Hawa and SCP students during MHS Student Alumni Panel, which included her younger brother, John Dumbuya. December 2014.

Hawa and SCP students during MHS Student Alumni Panel, which included her younger brother, John Dumbuya. December 2014.