From CCM to Harvard Neuroscientist
Michael Bukwich, from Parsippany, remembers the exact moment he decided he needed a college education. It was a hot July day; he was 21 and working as a roofer.
“It was 5:45 in the morning when I was climbing up the ladder, and the guy in front of me was about 60. I could hear him moaning in pain, and we hadn’t even started working yet,” recalls Bukwich. “I didn’t even want to imagine how he felt at the end of the day.”
A high school dropout, Bukwich fortunately had earned his GED. He knew that with his poor academic record, however, most colleges would not welcome him. Fortunately, there was an exception. As an open access institution, County College of Morris (CCM) provided him with a pathway for a higher education. After earning his associate’s degree in 2011, he was accepted and received scholarships to study neuroscience as an undergraduate at New York University (NYU). Next he was accepted at Harvard University as a Ph.D. candidate in its neuroscience program.
He explains that at CCM he discovered not only the extent of his abilities but also a determination to excel. “It was the positive feedback I received that encouraged me to do better. The only reason I got into NYU was because I did well at CCM. Had I tried to apply there on my high school record, I never would have been accepted.” The positive feedback that made the difference, he says, came from two professors in particular, Helen Mastrobuoni (now retired) from the Biology department and Laura Gabrielsen from the English department, who also serves as the Honors program advisor.
“Where I am now would have been unreachable if they hadn’t helped to transition me,” says Bukwich, who graduated CCM with a 3.9 GPA. It was at CCM that he discovered an interest in philosophy, which actually led to his interest in science. Neuroscience, he says, combines the two by offering a means for answering questions raised in philosophy, such as those relating to reason and the mind.
After transferring from CCM, he became the first NYU undergraduate to work in the lab of Paul Glimcher, a leading researcher in a field of decision-making known as neuroeconomics. “I knew I wanted to work in his lab and he kept saying, ‘No,’” recalls Bukwich. “I kept offering different ideas for additional research and finally he agreed to let me take part in his lab during the summer. I made sure I was there first thing in the morning and making valuable contributions so he wouldn’t want me to go.”
Mastrobuoni says it is that determination she admired in him when he was at CCM. “He has that ‘I will get there attitude’ that opens doors.”
Gabrielsen recalls being impressed by Bukwich’s ability to earn high grades both in his Honors science and humanities classes. “Usually science majors are not the best at the humanities. Michael, however, has it all.”
For Bukwich, his success largely stems from the love of a challenge. “The harder things are to accomplish, the more rewarding it feels when you get there.”