David Berroa, E’18, spent his early childhood in the Dominican Republic, far from the popular resorts and pristine beaches of Punta Cana. His streets were unpaved, and thick black industrial smoke hung in the air.
Fast-forward: After being selected as Northeastern’s first ROUTES scholar last year, Berroa had the opportunity to conduct research into another health hazard that affected his family and plagues much of the developing world: contaminated drinking water.
The new program—Research Opportunities for Undergraduates: Training in Environmental Health Sciences—aims to increase the number of minority undergraduates studying the effects of environmental contaminants on people and communities.
“My mother had to boil water and put it in the freezer,” says Berroa. He didn’t understand the significance of the process until his older brother contracted cholera from drinking contaminated water.
His ROUTES scholarship paid for a research co-op with Northeastern’s PROTECT Center’s Project 5, which is developing sustainable electrochemical technologies to clean up contaminated groundwater in Puerto Rico. “The work connected me to my upbringing,” he says.
When he was 6 years old, Berroa’s family left the Dominican Republic and settled in the inner city of Lawrence, Massachusetts. It was a difficult transition for a kid who spoke no English.
“I couldn’t communicate and felt trapped,” he says. “Being an immigrant, you don’t understand what’s going on, you don’t know the system, but you adapt.”
He adapted well, excelling at math at Lawrence High School and catching the attention of donors to the Boys & Girls Club, which provided a scholarship to Brooks, a private school in North Andover.
Based on his background and his performance in high school, Berroa was accepted into Northeastern’s Torch Scholar Program, which supports first-generation college students. He has also been named to the Huntington 100, a select group of students honored for their impressive achievements on campus and around the world.
Berroa says the ROUTES program fits neatly with his giving-back mindset. “Minorities don’t have many opportunities to represent their communities,” says Berroa. So he was intrigued when Akram Alshawabkeh, a Northeastern professor and the Project 5 director, said the research would be a way to have a voice in his community. “I couldn’t get that idea out of my head,” Berroa says.
Eventually, the industrial engineering major wants to help reduce the health hazards associated with high-tech manufacturing.
Photo: Adam Glanzman