Carlos R. Ramirez and Eric Larios sat in a hotel alcove in Arlington yesterday afternoon, relaxing apart from the bustle of a science symposium and talking about the results of their plant ecology research.

The two college students had studied sassafras leaves, Ramirez explained. They had determined that the largest leaves are located in the middle of each branch and that, among the mid-branch leaves, the largest and most important to the well-being of a tree have two lobes.

"Knowing about agriculture, we can attack hunger," said Ramirez, who like Larios is from El Salvador.

Ramirez, 25, and Larios, 24, were among 2,500 students and faculty members attending a conference by two national groups that have sought to increase the number of minority students and professors in the biomedical sciences.

The three-day conference was sponsored by Minority Biomedical Research Support and Minority Access to Research Careers. Both programs were established in the early 1970s by officials from the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda. The conference at the Hyatt Regency Hotel is scheduled to end today.

The careers program selects students who plan to pursue doctoral degrees and science careers. The research support program provides students with salaries to allow them to conduct biomedical research. Both programs award grants to colleges to help encourage minority education.

Richard Bennett Jr., a biochemistry professsor at Winston-Salem State University in North Carolina who is chief of the faculty directors of the research support program, said the programs are beneficial because minority students frequently are not encouraged to consider science careers, particularly at the high school level.

Minority students are "generally counseled away from the sciences in the high schools," Bennett said. "We have to go into the high schools to encourage the students . . . because the opportunities are there."

"I have found that most minority students aren't motivated {in the sciences in high school and college} because of the idea that the sciences are difficult," said Starr M. Phipps, 30, a master's degree candidate at North Carolina A&T State University. Phipps said she never would have considered a research career if it had not been for a professor's prodding.

Ramirez, who conducted his research under the research support program, and Larios, a participant in the minority careers program, presented their plant research findings at the conference yesterday. Both students attend Lehman College in New York.

"I was not interested in studying plants," Larios said. "But now I am, {after being offered} the fellowship to study plants {to help} create new drugs."

"When I came {to the United States} I was very interested in biology and now I'm even more," said Ramirez. "We're planning to stay here and do research. We are what I call the 'new' generation of Salvadorans in America. We want to help the society here. That would be a way to pay back."