The sounds of the timpani, marimba, xylophone, and snare and bass drums are sweet music to the ears of Meisha Bynoe, a native of the Caribbean island nation of St. Vincent and the Grenadines and a recent recipient of a Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) Gilliam Graduate Fellowship. Bynoe says that playing these instruments helped her achieve a perfect 5.0 grade point average at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge.
Bynoe received a bachelor's degree from MIT in June of this year with a double major in music and biology. When asked how she managed a perfect record throughout her undergraduate career at one of the toughest and most prestigious institutions of higher learning in the world, she answers, "A whole lot of hard work," then adds that majoring in music provided necessary relaxation. "I had my very hard biology, physics, and chemistry classes, and I also had music classes, which were much more fun, rather than a chore. That helped me with my class work and maintaining a good grade," she says.
Bynoe is spending the summer in Singapore as an intern at the Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology. Her varied interests will help her as she begins working on a Ph.D. in microbiology at Yale University.
Piano and Chemistry
Bynoe's musical interest dates back to when she began playing the piano, at age 6. Her interest in science goes back almost as far, to when she was 10. "[Science] seemed more fascinating than anything else I was doing in school at the time," she says.
During her early high school days, Bynoe was drawn to chemistry; she loved mixing chemicals together. As she advanced in school, Bynoe was introduced to biological experimentation, which, she says, "captivated my attention more than chemistry. Learning about the human body and the way the body functions got me hooked on biology."
For a time, she thought about becoming a physician, but her love of the laboratory eventually won out and she decided to focus on biological research.
MIT became Bynoe's school of choice when she heard a fellow citizen of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, himself an MIT graduate, make a presentation about the institute early in her high school career. He told the attending students what MIT had to offer and how to apply. Bynoe especially liked the fact that, as she puts it, "not many people from my country go to MIT."
Having set lofty goals, she worked hard to meet them and to become one of the few from her country to attend MIT. Her parents and teachers offered encouragement and advice, convincing her, as she puts it, to "formulate my goals and head for them, and other things will fall into place."
Although Bynoe's passion for science was strong, she did not wish to abandon music. She opted to study percussion instruments and spent 3 years as a percussionist with the MIT wind ensemble.
Bynoe received numerous honors at MIT, including selection as a participant in the HHMI Exceptional Research Opportunities Program. This program, aimed at disadvantaged students including underrepresented minorities, provided her with the opportunity to spend the summer between her junior and senior years at the University of California, San Francisco, in Richard Locksley's lab, identifying immune cells that ingest bacteria, known as macrophages.
Making a Difference in the Third World
With her outstanding college record, Bynoe could have picked any university for her graduate studies. She selected Yale, she says, because she was impressed with the research being conducted there and with "the fact that they are actively recruiting faculty into the department I wanted."
Now, she wants to pursue a career in microbial pathogenesis, the study of how viruses and bacteria infect humans and other organisms, and how the body responds. As a black woman and a native of a developing nation, this area particularly interests her because of what she sees as a lack of emphasis on infectious diseases and the preponderance of such diseases in Africa.
"A lot of infectious diseases are found almost exclusively in developing countries," Bynoe says. "There are a few people working on them but not nearly enough to make a really big impact."
Victor D. Chase is a freelance writer and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.