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Community college students from underrepresented groups intern, conduct research in VCU labs

Dorthea Adkins, a science major at Thomas Nelson Community College, recently wrapped up a five-week summer internship in a Virginia Commonwealth University lab researching the potential role of microglia – immune cells in the central nervous system – in multiple sclerosis.

Adkins – working under Jeffrey Dupree, Ph.D., an assistant professor of anatomy and neurobiology in VCU's Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics, part of the School of Medicine – was given images of six mice, five of which were sick with a disease close to MS and one that was healthy, and counted and scored the presence of microglia.

"They 'blinded them,' [concealing their identities] so I didn't know which was which. I had to give them a score between zero and three – zero being not activated, three being highly activated. In total, what I found was that most of these microglia were activated," she said. "But our data was inconclusive because we saw high levels of activation but we did not see a dramatic difference between the control mouse, which was not sick, and the sick mice."

Adkins, of Williamsburg, is one of nine Virginia community college students in the first cohort of a continuing two-year VCU Bridges to the Baccalaureate Dream-to-Goal Biomedical and Behavioral Summer Research Program.

Students taking part in the VCU Bridges to the Baccalaureate Dream-to-Goal Biomedical and Behavioral Summer Research Program: (From left to right) Nguyen Tran, John Tyler Community College; Eric Buchanan, Rappahannock Community College; Erick Sola', Thomas Nelson Community College; Courtney Yowell, John Tyler Community College; Dorthea Adkins, Thomas Nelson Community College; Jasmine Hardy, Thomas Nelson Community College; Alexis Lasstier, Rappahannock Community College; Cynthia Rodriguez, Germanna Community College; and Grace Jackson, John Tyler Community College.
Students taking part in the VCU Bridges to the Baccalaureate Dream-to-Goal Biomedical and Behavioral Summer Research Program: (From left to right) Nguyen Tran, John Tyler Community College; Eric Buchanan, Rappahannock Community College; Erick Sola', Thomas Nelson Community College; Courtney Yowell, John Tyler Community College; Dorthea Adkins, Thomas Nelson Community College; Jasmine Hardy, Thomas Nelson Community College; Alexis Lasstier, Rappahannock Community College; Cynthia Rodriguez, Germanna Community College; and Grace Jackson, John Tyler Community College.

The goals of this program are to increase transfer and graduation rates and the academic success of community college students interested in biology, and ultimately to increase the number of students from underrepresented groups who pursue research careers. Underrepresented groups include racial and ethnic minorities, students who are economically disadvantaged, disabled, originate from inner-city or rural areas, and those who are the first in their family to attend college.

"Good science comes from involving people with different perspectives," said Karen Kester, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of Biology in the College of Humanities and Sciences. "Including people from different backgrounds and perspectives energizes science and produces solutions."

Kester and Jennifer Stewart, Ph.D., also an associate biology professor, along with Martin Zahn, associate professor of biology at Thomas Nelson Community College, were awarded a five-year, $1.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health in early 2014 to implement the summer research program, improve advising for STEM and biology students and develop new courses to prepare undergraduates for research opportunities and careers. John Tyler Community College is also partnering with VCU, with biology professor Shijian Chu, Ph.D., as lead.

"Our short-term goal is to increase the number of students who transfer from community colleges – particularly our partner institutions, Thomas Nelson Community College and John Tyler Community College," Kester said. "We also hope to enhance the academic success of community college students to not just graduate from a four-year college or university. We want them to have the opportunity to go on to graduate school and succeed beyond."

For much of this first summer of the program, the students focused on learning research methods though a three-week Biology Boot Camp and five-week research internship. Next summer, they will return to conduct an eight-week independent research project, Kester said.

The nine students, including Adkins, all took part in summer research internship in labs across VCU. On a recent afternoon, they displayed their findings in a poster presentation in the lobby of VCU's Eugene P. and Lois E. Trani Center for Life Sciences.

Eric Buchanan, a Mattaponi resident studying science at Rappahannock Community College, interned in Daniel Conway's lab in the Department of Biomedical Engineering of the School of Engineering and worked on a project titled "Cloning Constructs for Live-Cell Imaging."

"[Doing this kind of research] was something completely new for me," Buchanan said. "I hadn't done anything like this before. It was something I'd never seen before. It was really great to come in, be in a lab and have that experience you can't really get from a book."

The other students taking part in the program are Thomas Nelson Community College students Jasmine Hardy of Hampton and Eric Solá of Newport News; John Tyler Community College students Grace Jackson of Chester, Nguyen Tran of Chesterfield and Courtney Yowell of Powhatan; Rappahannock Community College student Alexis Lassiter of Williamsburg; and Germanna Community College student Cynthia Rodriquez of Fredericksburg.

Eric Solá of Thomas Nelson Community College explains his research project at a recent poster presentation.
Eric Solá of Thomas Nelson Community College explains his research project at a recent poster presentation.

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