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Vito honored as leader in technology community
Aug. 27, 2014
Over the course of his career, Assistant Professor of biology David Vito has looked on proudly as his students take home awards and scholarships totaling more than $1 million. Now it's Vito's turn to take center stage as he receives the Community Leader Award from the Tech Collective, Rhode Island's bioscience and information technology industry association.
"It totally took me by surprise," said Vito of receiving the award, which he will receive at the annual Bioscience Awards ceremony on Aug. 28 at Kirkbrae Country Club in Lincoln. "And it feels great."
John O'Leary, director of special programs at the University of Rhode Island, nominated Vito. In addition to his work at the Community College of Rhode Island, where he has taught microbiology, organismal biology, cellular biology and biology in the modern world full time since 2006, Vito serves as coordinator of the Amgen Biotech Experience (ABE), a grant-funded program of the Amgen Foundation headquartered at the university. Vito has held the post for seven years, and O'Leary's familiarity with his work led to his nomination.
"I like to be a conduit for students so that I can help them move in a direction that's going to be helpful in their life," said Vito, who noted that the ABE program introduces an estimated 50,000 middle and high school students to hands-on molecular biology research nationwide through its offerings of professional development for teachers, development of teaching materials and research-grade equipment to schools. "This introduces students to the excitement of scientific discovery."
This infectious passion for the sciences – and for the confidence that comes with mastering challenging and interesting tasks – has driven Vito throughout his time as a teacher. His first teaching job out of college was at North Attleboro High School in Massachusetts, where he taught biology for 30 years, introducing students to the subject that had so captivated him as a young learner.
His legacy at the school, which includes introducing its science fair program and taking 19 students to the highly competitive International Science Fair, is no doubt precisely what the Tech Collective was thinking of when it recognized Vito for his advocacy, education and youth engagement work.
The benefits of introducing a science fair program into the curriculum at North Attleboro were many, he said. "It can be very difficult for students to talk to people. And through science fair, they'd learn how to talk to adults and get their point across. They'd learn about following through: If you start a project, you finish it. They learned paper writing skills, the beauty of the blackboard and how information can all flow together and, above all, it just built up their self-confidence," said Vito.
Fairs like the one Vito introduced also influenced Dr. Robert Lanza, who came to speak about his groundbreaking stem cell research at the college last year. "This is a guy who has Nobel Prize written all over him," recalled Vito, "and his eyes just lit up talking about his memories of his science fair projects."
Although his dedication and passion touched many students, Vito remembered one in particular who came to him in tears after school one day as she worked on her microbiology-related science fair project. "She said that she couldn't do it, that she wasn't a science person," he said. "I talked to her for a long time. She came back later on, and by the time she was a junior and then senior she was teaching students things she couldn't grasp when she was in tenth grade. I just talked to her recently. She has a Ph.D. now and she's a virologist, working with some of the deadliest viruses in the world."
Just as biology didn't come naturally to some of Vito's students, educational pursuits weren't always easy for Vito. A high school dropout, Vito's first step toward rebooting his education was to enroll at CCRI after taking time off to earn money in various manufacturing and labor jobs. While taking classes, working full time and raising a young family, Vito said he had his moments where he didn't think he was going to make it.
"I remember driving in to campus one day and just trying to think of a reason to turn around," he said. "But something told me to keep going. And I got that notion out of my mind, and I remember that. I tell my students today, if I can do it, you can do it."
Vito went on to get his bachelor's and master's in teaching from Rhode Island College and taught classes at CCRI on an as-needed basis during his time at North Attleboro High School. But the homecoming to CCRI was a special one for him, he said, because he sees students who remind him of himself when he was first starting out – and now he gets a chance to be their encouraging voice.
"I tell them, don't give up. Just keep going ahead. There's light at the end of the tunnel; you just have to have the perseverance to get there," he said.
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