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URI biotech student awarded Fearless Scientist Scholarship by Institute for Immunology & Informatics

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Todd McLeish
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PROVIDENCE, R.I. – November 4, 2009 – During a nearly 30-year career, Cranston resident Kathy Vachon has operated a foot press, sold insurance, worked as a diet aide at a nursing home, been a stay-at-home mom, and held jobs as a computer programmer and medical billing clerk. Along the way, she has been laid off three or four times.

This fall she enrolled in the University of Rhode Island’s Biotechnology Manufacturing Program to begin a new career, and she has already been rewarded with the Polly Matzinger Fearless Scientist Scholarship.

“The scholarship is all about women who have faced hardships in their lives and who have still made a career of science,” said Vachon, who is raising two children on her own after her husband, mother and grandmother passed away this year. “It’s nice to know that I’m considered a fearless scientist this early in my career. I’m pleased that they saw me as someone who had overcome a lot and was working toward becoming a successful scientist.”

The scholarship is funded by Providence-based biotechnology company EpiVax, Inc. and was presented by the URI Institute for Immunology and Informatics, a research laboratory that uses cutting-edge tools to accelerate the development of treatments for immune system diseases. Both EpiVax and the Institute are headed by URI Professor Annie De Groot. The scholarship is named for noted immunologist Polly Matzinger who also took an unconventional path to becoming a scientist.

“EpiVax hopes that the availability of scholarship funds will encourage more young women to consider science as a career,” said EpiVax Chief Operating Officer William Martin. “Although some advances in gender equality have been made over the years, Polly Matzinger’s achievements are particularly remarkable, in terms of her ability to create new scientific knowledge and challenge prevailing paradigms in a field dominated by men.”

Added De Groot, “It takes all kinds of people, including women like Polly Matzinger and Kathy Vachon, to make great science. “ The scholarship was presented on Oct. 27 at the opening reception for the Institute for Immunology and Informatics in Providence. Vachon enrolled in the URI biotechnology program because she was in need of a stable income and her skills for other jobs were out of date. “When I started looking into going back to school, I saw an ad for the biotech program on TV and I knew immediately that it was what I wanted to do,” Vachon said.

Although she had taken college classes before, she was a little nervous when she walked into the URI Providence campus on her first day. “It’s like learning a whole new language and there’s a lot of work involved, but because I like watching the forensic science shows on TV, a lot of what we’re learning I’m somewhat familiar with already,” Vachon said. “I love the challenge, and at this point in my life I really needed that. It’s something that makes me get up and face the world every day.”

Initiated in 2003, the URI Biotechnology Manufacturing Program features a rigorous curriculum that prepares students to work in the biotechnology industry and leads to a bachelor of science degree. Classes are held in Providence and begin with two semesters of full-time study followed by a summer internship at a biotechnology company in the area. Coursework includes biology, chemistry, biotechnology methods, microbiology and physiology. Following the internship, most students go to work full-time in the industry at starting salaries of $30,000-$40,000 and complete their education as part-time students.

“Everything seems to be falling into place for me,” said Vachon, who hopes to eventually earn a Ph.D. “There comes a time when you have to move forward regardless of your circumstances. I’m enjoying myself, I’m challenged every day, and I want to help people.”

Pictured above: Celebrating the awarding of the Polly Matzinger Fearless Scientist Scholarship are (l-r) Ed Bozzi, coordinator of the URI biotechnology manufacturing program, Polly Matzinger, immunologist at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, scholarship recipient Kathy Vachon of Cranston, and Nancy Fey-Yensan, interim dean of the URI College of the Environment and Life Sciences.

(URI photo by Michael Salerno)