Mathew Pekora had his sights on a career as a doctor since he was in high school. This year, he came one step closer to his goal by earning a bachelor's degree in Biological Sciences, with a minor in Chemistry, from Rowan University.
The Delmont resident is among the first cohort of graduating students from the Cumberland Bridge to Rowan program (also known as CB2R), a competitive research program made possible by a grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Cumberland's grant is funded through 2022.
"The CB2R program really means a lot to me and it is a highlight of my college experience," Pekora said. "I love learning and wanted a career that would constantly challenge me, keep me busy, and keep me engaged in meaningful experiences."
The biology-focused CB2R program provides institutional support to help students succeed in their development as scientists. Other first cohort CB2R graduates who earned their Rowan University bachelor's degree this year are: Ruth Altreche, Alejandro Leon Hernandez, Edwin Maestre and Luis Santiago Ortiz.
"All of these students have done exceptionally well at Rowan, having excelled in the classroom and in research," said Rowan University's Alison Krufka, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Biological Sciences, who oversees the CB2R program. "They each have bright futures ahead of them in biomedical sciences."
"I will always be grateful for the privilege of being part of the CB2R program because it exposed me to many of the opportunities that allowed me to excel, such as laboratory experience and the amazing one-on-one mentoring with my research professor," said Ruth Altreche, of Vineland. "When obstacles came, I did not let it stop me from pushing forward in achieving my goals. Thankfully all the hard work has paid off and I can stand proud of the accomplishment in receiving a bachelor's degree in Biological Sciences."
Pekora, who In September 2019, was awarded the Best Student Research Presentation at the Evolution in Philadelphia Conference in addition to receiving a 2020 Robert N. Renlund Preprofessional Award in the Allied Health Field, credits RCSJ biology professor Mark Randa, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Microbiology at RCSJ, with his earliest college successes.
"School work never seemed to be a challenge for me, but making meaningful connections was my main struggle," Pekora explained. "That changed when I took microbiology with Dr. Randa. His open passion for science was a huge inspiration for me. He told me about the [CB2R] program that would introduce research to undergraduate students. I wasn't aware of the world of research prior to this. I had no idea the magnitude this would have in my experience at Rowan."
Research at the community college level is practically non-existent. The CB2R grant funding makes it possible for students to experience authentic hypothesis-driven research in the laboratory with a possibility of having their findings published. The program's numerous activities provide the students with valuable experience and a competitive advantage as they continue working toward biomedical research careers or graduate programs.
"Seeing that it takes a lot of work outside the classroom to be successful is what drove me to do so many extra things," Pekora added. "Some nights I would be so tired that I wouldn't go home and just sleep in my car in the parking lot at Rowan or Cooper hospital where I did clinical research."
Both Altreche and Pekora will take their education further than earning their Rowan University baccalaureate.
"The next step of my journey points toward medical school to fulfill my lifelong dream of becoming a doctor," Altreche said. "This field of study is exactly what attracted me to the science field because there is so much that is involved in the functionality of the human body, or mammalian species in general. I would never have learned so many of these things without the CB2R program, and I will forever be grateful for a memorable experience at Rowan University."
Pekora, a first-generation college graduate, also has plans to go on to medical school.
"I will continue down a path of constant learning and challenge," he said. "My interest in research will now carry with me, and I feel it will be important in distinguishing what scientific information is reliable for my patients in the future."