Gaining Hands-On Experience in NSF Research Program

Pursuing a Goal to Improve Drug Development and Delivery

“None of this would have happened … if I had not enrolled at CCM.”

Young Latino male outside by a treeAs a student at County College of Morris (CCM), Juan Grisales-Gomez, 28, has received much more than an education. He has obtained the qualifications, hands-on training and assistance that gained him admittance to the National Science Foundation Research Experiences for Undergraduates summer program at the University of Puerto Rico.

In that fully funded program – covering everything from housing to tuition – Grisales-Gomez will engage in fundamental studies of materials and biomolecules for potential applications in water purification, energy storage, and drug design and delivery.

When he first arrived in the United States from Colombia at the age of 16, he says, “I couldn’t even understand, ‘Hello. How are you.’” His goal to pursue a career in health care, which took root when he was a boy, provided him with the impetus to master English.

While still living in Colombia, he recalls, “I was watching TV when I heard a noise from the back of the house and then saw my grandmother gasping for air. I was 9 years old. I saw her inhaler and helped her with it and she felt better. I felt like a hero. At that point, I knew I wanted to become a doctor and help people.”

After graduating high school, however, he had to start working and could not commit to college. He trained and found work as a nurse assistant and then went to school again and became a medical assistant/phlebotomist/EKG technician with St. Clare’s Health. When the pandemic hit, he obtained a position with LabQ where he became a supervisor, only to be let go when the crisis ended. It was then that he realized he needed a higher education to improve his career options.

He enrolled at CCM part-time so he could continue working as a medical assistant at an urgent care facility. His major initially was biology but when he took a chemistry class, he discovered there were other possibilities, specifically the opportunity to pursue a career in drug design and delivery.

“I got interested in how everything works together,” he says. Professor Jenifer Martin, Biology & Chemistry, also introduced him to CCM’s Bridges to Baccalaureate (B2B) program, which prepares underrepresented students to transfer to a baccalaureate STEM program. As a B2B participant, Grisales-Gomez participated in workshops, research and competitions, including the sySTEMic Challenge at Rutgers where his group won First Place for its research on how to turn mycelium fungus into bricks to build houses.

At the suggestion of Dr. Teresa Birrer, Biology & Chemistry, who oversees the B2B program, he applied for the research program at the University of Puerto Rico.

“It was one of those applications where I said, ‘Oh well, let’s see what happens.’ When I got the acceptance letter, I could not believe it. I am so very grateful. None of this would have happened if my mom had not moved my brother and me here and had I not enrolled at CCM.”

“I am beyond excited for Juan,” says Birrer. “I know this will change his life.”