$1.48M grant to aid community college students from underrepresented groups interested in biomedical sciences

Students in the 2018 cohort of VCU Bridges to Baccalaureate: Dream to Goal program, with Karen Ke...
Students in the 2018 cohort of VCU Bridges to Baccalaureate: Dream to Goal program, with Karen Kester, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of Biology in the College of Humanities and Sciences, and Sarah Golding, Ph.D., assistant professor and director of undergraduate research in the Department of Biology. (Courtesy photo)

The National Institute of General Medical Sciences has awarded a five-year, $1.48 million grant to a project that aims to improve academic preparation and transfer rates of community college biology students from underrepresented groups, as well as ultimately increase diversity in the biomedical and behavioral sciences.

The VCU Bridges to the Baccalaureate: Dream to Goal program, first launched in 2013, is an integrated student development, teaching, learning and research training program with partners at Virginia Commonwealth University, Thomas Nelson Community College and John Tyler Community College.

“Why do we need more diversity in the biomedical sciences? By increasing diversity, we’re increasing the breadth of research that's being done and that benefits more people,” said principal investigator Karen Kester, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of Biology in the College of Humanities and Sciences. “When people always see things through the same eyes, they see the same thing. But when you have people from different backgrounds and different experiences, they see different things.”

The grant, a Training, Workforce Development, and Diversity grant from NIGMS in the National Institutes of Health, is a competitive renewal of the original grant five years ago. It enhanced teaching and advising at VCU, TNCC and JTCC and provided a two-year summer research program for selected students from underrepresented groups, including racial and ethnic minorities and students from rural or inner-city environments.

The new grant builds on the program’s success and experience, and seeks to influence larger institutional and systemwide changes.

A key component will be to nurture talented STEM community college students from underrepresented groups who are interested in biomedical or behavioral research careers by enriching the pre-transfer preparation component of the eight-week Dream to Goal summer research program, providing an optional two-week extended research enrichment internship, and encouraging and facilitating post-transfer research activity.

It will expand post-transfer assistance for participants by developing an integrated support program for Dream to Goal scholars who transfer to VCU. Additionally, it will create a “handover network” for Dream to Goal scholars who transfer to other universities in Virginia.

The grant also will lead to the development of Course-based Undergraduate Research Experience, or CURE, modules for a general biology course that will be taught at TNCC and JTCC. It also will enable the development of evidence-based teaching innovations that will be disseminated throughout the Virginia Community College System and beyond. 

“There's some good research [that shows] engaging students in research early gets them more excited about science,” Kester said. “They can see the relevance of it. It's not just memorizing a bunch of facts. It engages them. And a way to do that is to develop economically feasible CURE modules that will be part of the lab experience at the two community colleges.”

Along with Kester, VCU Bridges to the Baccalaureate: Dream to Goal is led by Sarah Golding, Ph.D., assistant professor and director of undergraduate research in the VCU Department of Biology; Martin Zahn, associate professor at TNCC; and Shijian Chu, Ph.D., associate professor at JTCC.

Bridges to the Baccalaureate has made a “huge impact” at VCU and the partner colleges, Golding said, as the summer research program gives the community college students an opportunity to explore science alongside VCU’s top-ranked researchers and with peers in other VCU programs for students who are further along in their biomedical and behavioral research training.

“This experience allows the Bridges scholars to visualize themselves as scientists,” she said. “In addition, by enhancing communication with VCU’s feeder community colleges we can work together to enhance the transfer process, break down barriers, with the ultimate goal of diversifying the scientific workforce of the future.”

Based on the team’s experience of the past few years, Chu said, the program has proven successful at helping community college students transition to four-year universities to pursue studies in the biomedical field.

“This program is important because it gives underrepresented students an opportunity to gain experience in biomedical research, which they may never have without the program,” Chu said. “In the past five years, a limited number of students have gone through the program. With the new grant, the open-ended biology labs will impact all students that take general biology.”

Chu added: “I also hope that this program will initiate the trend in which undergraduate biology labs become more open-ended so that students will learn how to think as a scientist.”

Zahn said the grant’s renewal is great news for Thomas Nelson Community College students interested in science and research.

“More and more undergraduates have research experiences that are helpful both in choosing a career path and competitiveness for graduate school,” he said. “As a community college we have little opportunity to provide what is often called ‘an authentic research experience.’ This program provides that experience for a selected group of Thomas Nelson students each year.

“At the same time, the grant helps the National Institutes of Health increase the diversity of students entering allied health research programs,” he added. “Regardless of their choice of college to complete a bachelor’s degree, this program also helps students successfully bridge the difference between a community college and research university where they may be living away from home and in a new environment for the first time. The grant is truly a bridge to a new life for these students.”

VCU is a national leader in training of a diverse workforce in the biomedical sciences. VCU is one of the only institutions in the U.S. with a unique portfolio of Training, Workforce Development, and Diversity research training grants from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences that supports scholars at the undergraduate, post-baccalaureate, graduate and postdoctoral levels. Together, the current National Institute of General Medical Sciences awards to VCU for Bridges to the Baccalaureate, the Postbaccalaureate Research Education Program, the Initiative for Maximizing Student Development Scholars and the VCU Institutional Research and Academic Career Development Award program total $6.5 million.

About VCU and VCU Health

Virginia Commonwealth University is a major, urban public research university with national and international rankings in sponsored research. Located in downtown Richmond, VCU enrolls more than 31,000 students in 217 degree and certificate programs in the arts, sciences and humanities. Thirty-eight of the programs are unique in Virginia, many of them crossing the disciplines of VCU’s 11 schools and three colleges. The VCU Health brand represents the VCU health sciences academic programs, the VCU Massey Cancer Center and the VCU Health System, which comprises VCU Medical Center (the only academic medical center in the region), Community Memorial Hospital, Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU, MCV Physicians and Virginia Premier Health Plan. For more, please visit www.vcu.edu and vcuhealth.org.