At age 10, Meisha Bynoe dreamed of saving lives in her Caribbean homeland, St. Vincent and the Grenadines. As a child, Imran Babar was fascinated with the science underlying life on his family’s Minnesota farm. Last fall, both brought their curiosity and passion to Yale to pursue doctorates in the Combined Program in the Biological and Biomedical Sciences (BBS) with the support of Gilliam Fellowships awarded by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI).

The fellowships, named for the late James H. Gilliam Jr., an HHMI trustee who was devoted to fostering diversity in science and education, were awarded for the first time this year to a handful of outstanding minority or disadvantaged students in the life sciences. Although African-Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans make up 23 percent of the U.S. population, the National Science Foundation reports that these groups account for less than 5 percent of the nation’s scientists and engineers holding doctorates.

HHMI is the nation’s largest source of private funding for biomedical research and science education. Following a motto of “people, not projects,” the institute is best known for its HHMI investigator program, which grants top scientists generous and flexible contracts, renewable at five- or seven-year intervals, to lead HHMI-supported laboratories at their home institutions. But the institute has also awarded more than $1 billion in grants since 1988 to strengthen science education and to encourage students to pursue careers in the life sciences.

According to Peter J. Bruns, Ph.D., vice president for grants and special programs at HHMI, the institute’s program directors throughout the country, including Robert Wyman, Ph.D., professor of molecular, cellular and developmental biology at Yale, had been asked to nominate talented students for the Exceptional Research Opportunities Program (EXROP), a summer program in its second year that pairs undergraduate science students with HHMI investigators. From a pool of 84 EXROP students, six with extraordinary promise were chosen to be Gilliam Fellows.

While still an undergraduate at Carleton College in Minnesota, Babar was making substantial research contributions on the role of stem cells in tumor formation to the Massachusetts Institute of Tech-nology (MIT) laboratory of HHMI investigator Tyler Jacks, Ph.D., who served as Babar’s EXROP mentor during the summer of 2003.

Babar joined BBS through the Department of Cellular, Molecular and Developmental Biology.

Bynoe, who is a student in the microbiology track of the BBS program, says she finds New Haven to be “cozy” after four years at MIT, in Cambridge, Mass., where she double-majored in biology and music and achieved a perfect grade point average.

Bynoe’s EXROP experience with HHMI investigator Richard M. Locksley, M.D., at the University of California at San Francisco in the summer of 2004 was her first look at an immunology lab, and she found the work to be so enjoyable that her childhood dream of becoming a physician has given way to a wish to spend her life in science.

Two Gilliam Fellows now attending other universities did EXROP stints with Yale HHMI investigators. Naira Rezende, now at the Weill Medical College of Cornell University, spent last summer in the laboratory of David G. Schatz, Ph.D., professor of immunobiology at the medical school. Alexander Red Eagle, now enrolled at Stanford University, worked with Eugene Higgins Professor of Genetics and Pediatrics Arthur L. Horwich, M.D.