‘Designed to open doors’: How VCU GREAT is guiding underrepresented students in research

The program helps undergrads build a resume and work with VCU researchers in substance use and behavioral health.

A person points at a laptop computer screen being held by another person.
VCU's Guided Research Experiences & Applied Training program connects undergraduate students from backgrounds that are historically underrepresented in health sciences with mentors for a research project. (Getty Images)

It can be a challenge to begin a career in research and academia when a person comes from an underrepresented population. A program at Virginia Commonwealth University is hoping to change that. The VCU Guided Research Experiences & Applied Training program connects undergraduate students from backgrounds that are historically underrepresented in health sciences with mentors for a research project.

“We know that undergraduate programs are a documented way to develop a pipeline to academia,” said Amy Adkins, Ph.D, co-director of VCU GREAT. “Many students don’t realize that a career in research or academia is a possibility because it isn’t a lived experience. This program is designed to open doors.”

VCU GREAT is funded through the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and grew out of Spit for Science, an ongoing VCU project that creates opportunities for students to work with leading researchers in substance use and emotional health. The effort is a team approach and is managed by Adkins, Danielle Dick, Ph.D., co-director and commonwealth professor in the Department of Psychology in the College of Humanities and Sciences and in the Department of Human and Molecular Genetics in the School of Medicine, and Herb Hill, the program’s assistant director and director of undergraduate research and creative inquiry at VCU. Through VCU GREAT, roughly 10 students participate each summer in an eight-week summer research experience in substance use and behavioral health. They are matched with a mentor who helps guide them through the research process.

Stephanie Cull.
Stephanie Cull, a double major in psychology and sociology in the College of Humanities and Sciences, conducted research through the VCU GREAT program.

Stephanie Cull, a double major in psychology and sociology in the College of Humanities and Sciences, was selected for a project with B. Ethan Coston, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Gender, Sexuality and Women's Studies. Cull and Coston focused on the mental health impacts of alcohol use on LGBTQ students versus non-LGBTQ students.

Cull, who is a person with disabilities, is considering a career in research and academia. She was excited about the opportunity to do primary research through the GREAT program.

“In undergrad classes, we talk about data but I actually got to run the software and get results,” said Cull, a member of the Honors College. “It was actual experience. Doing undergrad research gives us a leg up getting into graduate school. The GREAT program is a unique opportunity and makes us so much more prepared for a future in research.” 

The program helps undergrads from underrepresented populations build a resume and allows them to have in-person interaction with a professor, Coston said. The idea is to demystify the research and paper-writing process. 

Coston has mentored other students in research and was excited that VCU GREAT involved underrepresented populations.

“As a queer, transgender, disabled, first-generation student who went to college very poor, I struggled to find spaces where I was understood and seen, and where mentoring wasn't top-down and exclusionary,” they said. 

Coston described Cull as an “incredibly insightful, analytical, motivated student with a passion for research.” Coston loved Cull’s desire to understand statistical software and focused the research in that direction. 

“I want people in the program to have enough proficiency in statistical software to be able to put it on their resumes or CVs and put it to use in future jobs or academic programs,” Coston said.

Coston and Cull plan to continue working together on their project, with the goal of writing a research paper based on the work. They plan to submit the paper to a journal for publication. 

“I absolutely believe that the GREAT program will lead many of the students who participate to consider post-baccalaureate research degrees and possibly positions with local and regional health departments or nonprofit organizations like Richmond Memorial Health Foundation,” Coston said. “The students I have talked to in the program are all desiring to make change in their social worlds, and many report that programs like this one are rare, but so necessary.”

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