Budding scientist and refugee gets research opportunity at Huntsman Cancer Institute

(Jordan Allred, KSL File)

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SALT LAKE CITY — A young woman from a country dealing with political instability and violence got the opportunity to study at the Huntsman Cancer Institute as part of a 10-week mentorship through the PathMakers program.

Moving to Utah was hard for 18-year-old Maria Salazar and her brother Luis. “He’s kind of my best friend,” she said.

The Salazars fled their home country, Venezuela, seeking political asylum. After essentially starting over, their father Luis Salazar said it has been difficult because they’ve sacrificed so much so their kids will be safe.

“My parents are chemical engineers, but here they have been working just in restaurants or warehouses,” Maria Salazar said. Maria taught herself to speak English and said she wants to become a scientist.

Through the PathMakers program, she got that chance. She studied how cancer cells react to glucose as part of a 10-week mentorship program at the Huntsman Cancer Institute. The PathMakers program offers students from tough circumstances a stipend and room and board.

Dr. Don Ayer, Ph.D., is the director of PathMakers. “We lose way too many bright kids from middle school to high school, who sort of drop off the map in terms of careers in science,” Ayer said. “I think focusing on this group that wouldn’t normally have this opportunity is particularly rewarding.”

On August 1, she presented her findings to a packed room full of other budding scientists at the University of Utah with her family cheering her on.

“We’ve given her something that’s pretty advanced to do in the lab and she’s really taken that and run with it,” Ayer said.

But what she really wants to study isn’t cancer. It’s Asperger’s Syndrome, a condition on the autism spectrum. A dream inspired at home by her brother.

“To me, he is normal,” Salazar said. “He is like any person. He has feelings. I really want for him to be safe and for him to have a better quality of life.”

Some called what Maria has grit while others called it determination.

“What we do is not easy,” Ayer said. “Science is tough business. It’s very much two steps forward, one step back. So you really have to have a lot of resilience.”

Either way, it just may be the stuff great scientists are made of.

“I just keep trying until it works,” Salazar said.

Officials said the hope is Maria and students like her will go on to graduate school and make discoveries in science. Discoveries that for Maria, began with the love for her brother.

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