A full-time undergraduate researcher at the University of Medicine & Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ); a volunteer at Mercer County Correctional Center; a health clinic volunteer in Peru—these may sound like the accomplishments of three different people, but one ambitious student, Michelle Cornacchia ’09, achieved them all in one summer.
Cornacchia, a biology major with a concentration in women’s and gender studies, participated in a 10-week undergraduate summer research program in neuroscience at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School at UMDNJ, working with Dr. James Millonig on identifying risk factors for schizophrenia, a neuropsychiatric illness that affects approximately one percent of the general population. Multiple genetic and environmental factors contribute to a person’s susceptibility.
The senior biology major said she loved working in the lab, and would often arrive hours before the other researchers got in. It was the collaboration that lab work entails that excited her the most, she explained.
“You’re not always going to find the cure for cancer, but every little thing you do, the closer you get to some sort of truth, adds on to someone else’s data or conclusion, and someone adds on to yours, and you keep going until you get close to some sort of huge discovery,” she said.
Her experiences in the UMDNJ program convinced Cornacchia to pursue an MD/PhD, rather than an MD, so that she can focus more on medical research, particularly in complex diseases. She is currently applying to medical schools, and as of press time planned to return to the university during winter break to continue working with Dr. Millonig on autism research.
Despite her busy lab schedule, Cornacchia also found time last summer to volunteer at Mercer County Correctional Center. She worked with male prisoners in an ESL class, and taught a course on polynomials to female inmates in order to prepare the prisoners for college entry exams. She also tutored a woman in mathematics in preparation for the GED. Cornacchia continues to tutor at the correctional facility today.
“Many people’s views of prisoners have been shaped by negative media representations,” Cornacchia said. “Instead of just silencing individuals and locking them away, I say educate and heal.”
Cornacchia’s volunteer work at the correctional center earned her the New Jersey AmeriCorp Bonner Leadership award. With the award money, she traveled to Peru at the end of last summer to volunteer in a health clinic and community center. While there, she witnessed the brutal conditions in the public clinics, where frustrated doctors with limited medical supplies treat patients with no health insurance. The experience was an eye-opener for her.
“To make an impact on today’s society we need to help all people,” Cornacchia said. “We need to get to the root of the problem to make a difference. If given the chance, anyone can change, but we need to help give others that opportunity.”