When Hurricane Maria devastated their homeland of Puerto Rico in 2017, the Guzmán brothers found a supportive Carolina community – even before they began graduate studies here
In September 2017, Hurricane Maria was, according to NASA, the fifth strongest storm to make landfall in the United States. The family of Bryan and Kenneth Guzmán, fraternal twin brothers from Puerto Rico, experienced many challenges in the aftermath of Maria.
For weeks, the Guzmáns did not know how their loved ones in Puerto Rico had fared. The brothers were living within the U.S. mainland, and they did not know that their mother struggled without electricity and that close relatives had lost their home.
During this time, they did learn about the power of community thanks to the support they received from faculty and staff at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
“I was provided with a sense of empathy, family and community,” says Bryan Guzmán. “I could go to them and they guided me with the right steps to follow. They were good to me, both personally and professionally.”
They had especially helpful interactions with the Biological and Biomedical Sciences Program: Joshua Hall, who directs admissions and the UNC Postbaccalaureate Research Education Program (PREP), and Jessica Harrell, who leads several initiatives that support undergraduates and graduate students in the biomedical sciences.
The Guzmáns met Hall and Harrell in 2016 when they both participated in The Graduate School’s Summer Undergraduate Pipeline (SUP), a Diversity and Student Success initiative that collaborates with programs campus-wide. Through SUP, undergraduates from institutions across the country conduct research within faculty-led teams. Kenneth worked in organic chemistry in the lab of Erik Alexanian, associate professor of chemistry, while Bryan studied protein mass spectrometry in the lab of Gary Glish, professor of chemistry.
Noelle-Erin Romero, program coordinator for the Summer Undergraduate Research Opportunity in Chemistry, remembers how hard the Guzmáns worked and how encouraging they were to the other five students in their SUP cohort.
“Since arriving on campus, you could tell that they were caring, jovial, supportive and hard-working. With such a small cohort, the seven students formed quick and strong bonds, and at the heart of it were Kenneth and Bryan.”
The Guzmáns say the Summer Undergraduate Pipeline was an enriching experience, but it came with a unique set of challenges. After four years of studying chemistry in the University of Puerto Rico at Cayey, they were – for the first time – in an academic environment where only English was spoken. They were learning scientific terms in a language they had experienced primarily through subtitles of American movies and video games. At the same time, they were learning the rigors of research.
They presented their research with more than 100 other undergraduates at the end of the summer program. After he completed his undergraduate degree that next academic year, Bryan returned to UNC-Chapel Hill in June 2017 to participate in UNC PREP. Kenneth received his degree and began his own postbaccalaureate research program, also in June 2017, at Baylor College of Medicine.
They both began their doctoral studies in biological and biomedical sciences in fall 2018. “UNC-Chapel Hill was my choice because of the great research opportunities and the great environment it provides everyone involved for sharing ideas, collaborating and supporting each other,” Kenneth Guzmán says.
A productive summer research experience can be the deciding factor in a person’s motivation to pursue a doctorate, Romero says. She adds: “Knowing that you are capable of performing research at an advanced level is one thing, but knowing that there is a community and network of support that is pushing for you to succeed and willing to help you achieve your goals can be a huge motivator in your personal success and growth.
“I’m proud of both Kenneth and Bryan for their perseverance and determination, and I look forward to all they can accomplish at Carolina.”