Wednesday, May 15, 2013

NIH internship brings Germanna student a step closer to childhood dream

 Germanna Community College student Ulisses Santamaria, the son of immigrants from El Salvador, has always wanted to be a doctor—so much so that as a child he became his own first patient.
Ulisses Santamaria to research how the retina processes images

  “I’ve always had a thing for medicine,” he says. “Even as a kid, if I was kind of my own doctor. If I had cuts or bruises, I’d fix them myself. I was pulling my own teeth out when they were ready. I pulled out the last [baby tooth] when I was 9 years old.

 “I wanted to be a clinical surgeon. But I’ve always thought it was interesting what goes into the research that goes into developing tools used in surgery.”

 He has worked as a volunteer at the Spotsylvania Regional Medical Center, mostly in the emergency room.

Now the 18-year-old Spotsylvania County native has become one of the early success stories for Germanna Community College’s new Experiential Learning internship program. Through the program Ulisses has landed an internship at the National Institute for Health.

 He will be mentored by Dr. Alon Poleg-Polsky in research involving the structure and function of the retina at the National Institute of Neurological Disease and Stroke in Bethesda. The work will involve investigation into how the retina performs preliminary image processing and transmits visual information to the brain.

His father immigrated from El Salvador in 1989 to escape a civil war there.  His mother followed a year later.

“For my mom, it was a better opportunity to work over here and send money back home,” he said. “At the same time,there was a war going on in El Salvador.  Instead of going into the civil war, they told him it would be better to come to the United States to avoid that.”

  Ulisses is the first member of his immediate family to go to college. His father works as a home renovator.

  Ulisses is the first member of his immediate family to go to college.

He credits Gary Brightbill, an 8th grade science teacher at Battlefield Middle School who was honored as one of Spotsylvania County’s best teachers for 2013, for piquing his interest in science. “He set off the spark,” Ulisses says. Faculty members at Germanna have fanned that spark into a flame, he says.

“I always planned to come to Germanna from the moment I began my freshman year at Courtland. “It’s less expensive than four-year schools and I’ve had good teachers here.  Dr. Trudy Witt, for biology, is one of my favorites.  Prof. Mike Shirazi in math—that man is great. And [Prof. Shawn Shields-Maxwell] is a pretty awesome chemistry teacher.”

Prof. Trudy Witt

 Prof. Witt said: "Ulisses is an excellent student ...  His love of life and enthusiasm for science is contagious. He was a pleasure to have in class."

Cheri Ober, Germanna’s internship program coordinator, says Ulissis has been working his way through college by delivering pizzas. This summer the paid NIH internship will give him the chance to earn money doing work related to his career goal for the first time, she says.

To learn more about Germanna’s internship program, email Ober at or go to




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