Meet Gates Scholar: Gloria Portocarrero

It was when she enrolled in graduate school that Gloria Portocarrero realized how lucky she was to have a Gates Scholarship.  The Gates scholarship, which paid for her undergraduate studies, would also pay for her to get a Ph.D.

“Until grad school I didn’t understand how valuable the Gates scholarship is,” said Gloria, now a second year Ph.D. student in biomedical engineering at NJIT.  “The scholarship would also pay for me to attend graduate school. That’s pretty awesome.”

Gloria herself is pretty awesome. When she was a senior at Union Hill High School, Union City, she was named a Gates Millennium Scholar. The award, from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, goes to outstanding minority students whose parents have significant financial need. Gloria’s father is from Peru and her mother from Ecuador.  Her father studied civil engineering in Peru, but his studies were interrupted when he came to America. Gloria was thus the first in her family to finish college -- she graduated from NJIT in 2008.  

Gloria was lucky. In high school she had one of the best science teachers in the nation, Nadia Makar, a winner of the Presidential Award for Excellence in Math and Science Teaching.  Makar saw that Gloria was eager to learn, so enrolled her in Project SEED, a summer intern research program. Through Project SEED, Gloria did two research projects at Stevens Institute of Technology: one on polymer applications and another on robotics.  Makar mentored Gloria all through high school and took a personal interest in her education.

“I’m passionate about science and when I get a student like Gloria who has an interest in the sciences I encourage them in every way I can, says Makar, Science Department Chair at Union City High School. “I’ve been teaching for a long time and I have a sixth sense about which of my students will go far and Gloria is a winner.”

Makar encouraged Gloria to take college-credit calculus and physics on Saturdays at NJIT. The classes are offered through NJIT’s Center for Pre-College Programs. When she was in elementary school, Gloria had also taken summer science classes for girls (FEMME) at NJIT.  All that extra study turned Gloria into a gifted science student, so when she enrolled as a freshman at NJIT in 2004, she was prepped for success.  And succeed she did.

At NJIT, Gloria belonged to the Albert Dorman Honors College as well as the Educational Opportunity Program (EOP). She was also a McNair Scholar, a program that prepares minority students for doctoral study by having them do research with NJIT professors. During her junior year at NJIT, Gloria started doing research with Professor Treena Arinzeh, a prominent stem cell expert. Under Arinzeh’s direction, Gloria studied how stem cells are used to develop cartilage.  She continued that research through her senior year and has never left Arinzeh’s lab.

Gloria is now a full-time research assistant for Arinzeh. The two have submitted an academic paper based on Gloria’s research, Arinzeh said.  And Gloria was also recently invited to talk about her research during the upcoming Biomedical Engineering Society Conference in Hartford, Conn.

“I’m really excited about the conference,” said Gloria. “I feel like I’m at a point where I can make a contribution to the field of stem cell research.”

Gloria is grateful to NJIT for all the opportunities it gave her: EOP recruited her and supported her academically; the Honors College challenged her with its top students and rigorous classes; and the McNair program prepared her for graduate school by introduced her to Arinzeh and stem cell research.

“I feel blessed to be at NJIT,” said Gloria. “It helped me find what I love to do – stem cell research.  One day, after I finish my Ph.D., I hope to work as a researcher for either a university or the federal government. I want to help take stem cell research to the next level, where it can be used to cure people and help them lead longer lives.” 

(By Robert Florida, Office of Strategic Communications)