York's Latest Salk Scholar Heads to Medical School

Professor Louis Levinger called it when he predicted that then-sophomore Kyla-Gaye Pinnock would go places as a Biotech major in his class. She is now heading to medical school and has just been awarded the prestigious Salk Scholarship.

True to prediction, Pinnock, who graduated in 2013 but remained as a researcher in her mentor's lab, has just accepted an offer to attend medical school at SUNY Downstate Medical Center.

"Right now I’m looking at [studying] orthopedic surgery and some kind of outreach in minority communities,” said Pinnock, a native of St. Catherine, Jamaica, who came to the United States at the age of 13.

Levinger prepared her well.

“Our current project includes mutations in the tRNASE Z enzyme that causes mitochondrial diseases,” said Pinnock.  “We try to figure out how these mutations affect the enzyme’s structure and function. In research there is a lot of problem-solving and Dr. Levinger is just always telling you to ‘look at it from different perspectives, there’s a solution, you just have to find it.’”

And find it she has. Pinnock, who as a student served on the college’s Curriculum Committee, has presented at the RNA Society Conference at the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students (ABRCMS). And it’s “all because of Dr. Levinger.”

“He definitely advocates for us to go out and see what other researchers are doing,” said the former York Honors Program student. “The whole Biotech major is a small major so you get lots of one-on-one and lots of hands on research [opportunities] from him.”

Levinger, a copious grant writer, has received funding from national science institutions such a a National Science Foundation Grant award of $248,894 for a three-year period for the project, “Regulation on Substrate Binding and Catalysis in tRNase Z. 

            “Kyla was supported as a student on research fellowships and is currently supported on a research grant,” he explained. “She will be a co-author on several research papers and will be first author on at least one.”

Asked what she would advise other students at York, the future Dr. Pinnock encouraged a well-rounded experience.

“You have to be more proactive to find out what’s going on and take advantage of as much as possible,” said Pinnock, daughter of a school teacher and a limousine company employee. “It’s not just about academics, but about social and the total college experience.”

Pinnock is definitely one to talk. In addition to her former roles on the Curriculum Committee, she was on the college’s inaugural soccer team and was a member of the soccer club; tutored in the former YES program and participated in CUNY’s “alternative winter break” for the project, “Rebuilding Together New Orleans.” Along with other York students, faculty and an administrator and fellow- CUNY students, she helped to rebuild homes damaged by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.

One could say that the Salk Scholarship is the "cherry on top" for Pinnock's York experience. Named for Dr. Jonas Salk, the physician who developed the polio vaccine, the coveted Salk Scholarship has been won by numerous York Biology students over the years.

“In addition to being bright, Kyla is motivated, patient and persistent,” said Dr. Levinger. “The Salk Scholarship is a significant award as a record of Kyla’s biomedical research accomplishments at the transition between the BS in Biotechnology and her matriculation in Medical School.”

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