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Ellen Leitman

College: Hunter College
Awards: Clarendon Fund Scholarship to Oxford for Ph.D., 2012

She's Finding a New Pathway

Why can the immune systems of some children destroy the HIV virus but most can't? Is it possible to develop a vaccine that would let HIV-infected people stop taking antiretroviral drugs, which prevent their infection from turning into full-blown AIDS?

These are among the questions that Ellen Leitman (Hunter 2010, now finishing her second year in an MD/PhD program at Harvard Medical School) hopes to answer as she pursues a doctorate at Oxford University through a highly competitive 2012 Clarendon Fund Scholarship. It covers tuition and college fees, plus has a generous grant for living expenses.

Launched by Oxford University and financed by Oxford University Press in 2001, the Clarendon Fund opened to applicants of all nationalities in 2011, when it accepted scholars from 46 countries. The program chooses fewer than 7 percent of applicants.

Leitman is CUNY's second Clarendon recipient, joining 2011 Clarendon winner Kunchok Dolma (Macaulay Honors College at Lehman College valedictorian, 2009; Watson Fellow, 2006, New York City Urban Fellow, 2010), who is pursuing a master's degree in international relations.

"Scholars are selected from the leaders in their field," according to the Clarendon website. That is, academic departments nominate whom they believe are the most deserving of their place at the University of Oxford based on their academic record and ability to contribute significantly to their field of study, both in the present and future. This feature ensures the best and brightest minds are selected as Clarendon scholars."

"I'm very excited," says Leitman, particularly because the pediatric HIV laboratory at Oxford where she will study is allied with a research center in South Africa, where at least 11 percent of the population — and in some provinces and populations far more — is infected with the virus. "They have already established cohorts of infected children, because HIV is so huge there, and it will be great to be able to work with those researchers and children."

She already has a feel for such research, having worked in a South African lab last summer that worked with adults. "I got very interested in both immunology research and the clinical aspect of HIV treatment," she says.

This was an evolution of her thinking about fields of research. Having probed cell biology while earning her Hunter degree in biological sciences, she initially considered stem cell research. Through Macaulay Honors College and with a nudge from her Hunter mentors Carmen Melendez-Vasquez and Roger Persell, she also conducted neurological research at Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass., in the summers after her sophomore and junior years.

"That was the turning point for me. I said to myself, ‘I have to do research. I can't live without research.'"

She explored misregulation of axonal transport in various neurodegenerative diseases - that is, the simultaneous movement of proteins and other materials to and from the neuron's cell body to the nerve fiber terminals. Beyond that, she was captivated by the atmosphere at Woods Hole. "Famous scientists from all over the world, lots of lectures and seminars, classes to attend. And it's beautiful - forests, lakes, it's fantastic."

Leitman, born in Belarus to parents who were chemical engineers in the former Soviet Union, came to the United States six months before she started at Hunter. She spoke English well, having studied it in Belarus and having spent a high school year in Alamagordo, New Mexico. Her academic talent was quickly realized. As a sophomore, she was awarded a Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship, which Congress created to help provide a continuing source of highly qualified scientists, mathematicians and engineers.

Research runs in the family. Her sister has just finished a PhD in molecular biology at Tel Aviv University.

At Harvard Medical School, her "new pathway" program integrates the biological, social, behavioral and clinical sciences over four years. It allows a break for a PhD (Oxford offers an equivalent D.Phil.) after the first two years. When Leitman returns after an anticipated three years at Oxford, she will finish the two clinical years of medical school.

"I'm not that concerned about time; it's about priorities," she says of the continuing stretch of education.

As for her future in medicine, she says "maybe immunology, maybe pediatrics" but acknowledges that "many medical students change their ideas about a specialty" as training progresses. However, she adds, "I'd like to be able to practice medicine and to do research. I want to do both."