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VCU’s research training programs give underrepresented students and faculty a platform for discovery

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Last November, Virginia Commonwealth University senior Delisa Clay was one of the 96 students out of 2,035 picked to give an oral presentation of her research at the 15th Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students in Seattle. That alone was huge.

And then she won “Best Oral Presentation” for her talk, “Defining Cellular Dynamics and Biomechanical Forces During Wound Healing in Xenopus laevis Embryos.” Only one other VCU student has won an oral presentation award at the event in the past five years. It was a big deal for Clay — and for VCU.

The competition level is high for this award. Students are judged based on their research, presentation skills and how well they answer questions about their work. “The quality of the presentations students are giving is way above what we expect normal undergrads to do,” said Sarah Golding, Ph.D., instructor in the Department of Biology at the College for Humanities and Sciences and director of the undergraduate component of the Initiative for Maximizing Student Development program.

Clay’s research is a result of her work as a scholar with IMSD. It’s one of several research training programs within VCU’s Center on Health Disparities aimed at increasing the number of people from underrepresented backgrounds obtaining a Ph.D. in biomedical sciences.

“We want the best and brightest people to be doing scientific research and solving biomedical problems,” said Joyce Lloyd, Ph.D., professor and vice chair of education for the Department of Human and Molecular Genetics. She’s also co-director of CoHD’s postdoctoral program, Institutional Research and Academic Career Development Award, with Paul Fisher, Ph.D., professor and chair of the Department of Human and Molecular Genetics. “If you’re only capturing part of the population, then you’re not going to get all the best and the brightest.”

Delisa Clay
Delisa Clay

Discovery through diversity

There is a belief that when you have diversity, science itself is enriched in the broad sense.

Just as diversity is said to foster a more creative workforce highly adept at problem-solving, diversity in science is critical for discovery and innovation. “There is a belief that when you have diversity, science itself is enriched in the broad sense,” said Louis De Felice, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Physiology and Biophysics and IMSD program director. “Diversity itself is something worth pursuing in its own right. It has scientific benefits.”

However, science still suffers from a predominantly homogenous pool of researchers. Based on a 2013 National Science Foundation study, underrepresented minorities make up less than 10 percent of those pursuing doctorates in science and engineering disciplines — a percentage that has flattened since 2000.

To help balance the disproportion, the National Institutes of Health funds a portfolio of grant programs to get underrepresented students into the pipeline for a biomedical research career. Universities across the country have instituted one or more of these grant programs, and VCU is one of only a handful of universities that currently holds funding from five of these grants.

“Underrepresented” is the word best used to describe the students who would qualify for the grants, according to De Felice. Racial ethnicity can play a role, though “underrepresented” expands the parameters to include people who are economically and educationally deprived, and even those with a disability, all of which can express itself as a disadvantage. “When a person applies to the program, they can identify their own definition of being underrepresented,” De Felice said.

First-generation scientist

In the lab, Clay works with African clawed frog embryos. There is a delicate nature to her work. She anesthetizes the embryos, makes a deliberate superficial wound and uses a biosensor to measure the forces across the cells — or how the cells move and behave — during wound healing. “So far my findings suggest that a manipulation of cellular forces may serve as a potential treatment for chronic or slow-healing wounds in patients with a compromised immune system,” she said.

She loves her work. However, when Clay came to VCU, she didn’t understand the basics of research, and she had never even used a microscope. That was OK. Her passion was medicine and she wanted to be a doctor.

As a kid, she watched surgery shows and she thrived at science. There was also family pressure. “In my culture and family, if you’re good at biology and you’re smart, they automatically put you in this box of being a doctor. There are no other options,” said Clay, who grew up in an unstable household and moved around a lot before settling with her grandmother in Virginia. She is the first in her family to go to a four-year university.

It’s common for underrepresented students to not have exposure to research careers, and they often don’t see people who look like them in these careers, according to De Felice. “They head straight to medicine because that is what they know or have been told is the best way to make it,” he said. “But if you scratch a little bit, you realize a lot of them are scientists and what they like is science.”

That’s what happened to Clay in her sophomore year. She was in a cell biology class, and her professor started asking questions about the future. What are you going to do when you graduate? What are your options if you don’t get into medical school?

“It expanded my horizons by going into research, and once I got in, I realized medicine is not what I wanted to do,” Clay said. She had shadowed other doctors and it was nothing like the feeling she got in the lab. “I had that ‘click’ feeling that this is what I want to do every day for the rest of my life.”

Clay joined the IMSD program as a junior and is mentored by Amanda Dickinson, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Biology, and Daniel Conway, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering in the School of Engineering.

She attributes her success to being able to ask a lot of questions and make mistakes through one-on-one training, the hallmark of CoHD programs. “This is the way science gets taught,” Lloyd said. “It’s sort of like an apprenticeship system and the student learns how to think scientifically, and to design and carry out experiments. It takes time to learn and you step up along the way.”

Clay is continuing along the research pipeline. She has applied to several Ph.D. programs and has started interviewing, though she’s already been officially accepted at VCU.

A new healing path

Daniel Abebayehu
Daniel Abebayehu

Like Clay, graduate student Daniel Abebayehu was on track for medical school until he got a taste of the lab as an undergrad at the University of Virginia. It’s not that he wasn’t exposed to other careers in science and technology. His parents are Ethiopian immigrants who came to the states to complete their education — his dad, a Ph.D. in economics, and his mom, a master’s in civil engineering. Abebayehu, who grew up in Alexandria, Virginia, was passionate about medicine.

“Throughout my youth, a very tangible way of helping people always seemed to be caring for the sick,” he said. He points to a trip to Ethiopia where he witnessed impoverished people in poor health as well as his religious faith as contributing factors to his initial pursuit of medicine.

But once he got into a lab researching tissue engineering and regenerative medicine, he was hooked. He saw what it was like to try to engineer different tissues of the human body. “The idea of implanting something and then all of a sudden that implant promoting the growth of a whole new blood vessel or new bone in its place was fascinating to me,” he said.  It was a whole other way of helping people.

Abebayehu is in his fifth year of the biomedical engineering Ph.D. program at VCU. Since joining the graduate IMSD program in March 2015, he has expanded his research to include how interactions with the immune system can initiate responses that help promote the growth of new tissue in a therapeutic way. “The prospect of triggering the body to heal in days rather than weeks and months by balancing inflammation and new blood vessel growth is pretty amazing,” he said.

I can just focus on knocking out top-notch research.

His mentor, John Ryan, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Biology, introduced him to IMSD. Most graduate students in the program start from the beginning of their tenure, though Abebayehu started after his third year. “Right now, it’s been enabling me to continue the research I’ve been doing, and it’s also given me the opportunity to present at more conferences.”

The grants also take the pressure off students from having to hunt for research funding or even to wrap up a project in case funding dries up. “I can just focus on knocking out top-notch research,” Abebayehu said. His last year in the IMSD program will culminate in receiving his Ph.D. From there, he’ll look for a postdoctoral position that he hopes will lead to a faculty position.

From the laboratory to the classroom

Teshell Greene, Ph.D.
Teshell Greene, Ph.D.

CoHD programs aren’t necessarily designed to keep students at VCU. “There’s a lot of exchange between schools,” Lloyd said. “We’re drawing post-bacs from other institutions and we may be sending our undergrads off to IMSD Ph.D. programs at a MAPRs institution.” MAPRS is the Mid-Atlantic PREP and IMSD Research Symposium, a consortium of eight schools, including VCU, that all have Post-Baccalaureate Research Education Programs (PREP) or IMSD programs, or both.

Teshell Greene, Ph.D., instructor in the VCU Department of Biology, is part of this external pipeline (though not from a MAPRS university), and came to VCU in 2012 specifically for the IRACDA teaching and research fellowship.

Greene was always going to be a scientist. From her early days as a kid in St. Kitts in the Caribbean to high school and college in New York City and completing her Ph.D. in pharmacology from the University of Pennsylvania, she never doubted she was on the research track.

Her passion is anything to do with the heart and blood. “I worked in hematology for my grad program, and I did a lot of gene therapy studies,” she said. “When I came to VCU, I continued in the cardiovascular field.” She worked at the VCU Health Pauley Heart Center with Rakesh Kukreja, Ph.D., director of the Molecular Cardiology Research Laboratories. His research looked at the cardio-protective effects of phosphodiesterase type 5 (PDE5) inhibitors at regulating heart attacks in several mouse models. (PDE5 inhibitors are drugs like Viagra used to treat erectile dysfunction.)

While working in the lab, Greene informally helped a student from the IMSD program. “It was the most fulfilling thing about it for me,” she said. “I like teaching students about research and how to take what they’ve learned in the classroom to that next level — it was just great.” Once she got into her teaching externship at Virginia State University (as part of IRACDA) she had carved a new path for herself.

Now Greene teaches three undergraduate biology courses and devotes her other time to service in K-12 STEM programming. She is keenly aware that having exposure to science at an early age was critical to her finding her career path. “That’s the reason why I’m passionate about K-12, because there aren’t too many African-Americans and underrepresented students in the sciences, especially females,” she said. 

She works with the Middle School Science Teachers Soar program in nearby Henrico County designing modules with teachers from five low-performing schools. Greene is big on interactive, hands-on learning, and she develops fun experiments that allow students to see science in action and become familiar with the basic tools of research.

“That’s the whole point of trying to bring underrepresented students into the sciences — just to let them know I’m an African-American female in science and I’ve done it, and as long as you’re passionate and this is what you’ve been called to, then go for it,” she said.

In June, Greene will kick off a new CoHD program targeted at middle school teachers in Richmond and neighboring cities and counties. Health Educational Research Opportunities for Teachers is designed to give teachers a mentored research experience with VCU faculty members, with the hope of improving the quality of science teaching as well as student success. HERO-T is an NIH-funded grant, and the principal investigator isRosalyn Hobson Hargraves, Ph.D., interim department co-chair and associate professor of teaching and learning in the School of Education.

There are roughly 100 students in VCU’s CoHD current research training programs, which launched about seven years ago. They include the undergraduate and graduate arms of IMSD; IRACDA; Maximizing Access to Research Careers, directed by Juanita Sharpe, Ph.D., assistant vice provost for academic and faculty affairs; and PREP, directed by Lloyd. Bridges to the Baccalaureate: Dream to Goal, which helps community college students transfer to a four-year college and complete their degrees ideally in biomedical science, is run out of the Department of Biology by Karen Kester, Ph.D., an associate professor in the department.

All grants are funded by the NIH, with total funding of $5.5 million. The IMSD and PREP grants were just renewed, and IRACDA and MARC are currently being reviewed for renewal. The VCU School of Medicine has also supported the programs with $1.6 million in funding since 2008.

CoHD grants fund student research, and they also include a stipend or salary, tuition and travel support to conferences, which can be an important learning and networking opportunity for students at every level.

For more information about the Center on Health Disparities and its training programs, visit healthdisparities.vcu.edu.

The CoHD programs are funded by the following training grants from the NIH: Maximizing Access to Research Careers (MARC) — T34GM092447, J. Ryan, PI; Initiative to Maximize Student Development (IMSD) — R25GM090084, L. De Felice, PI; Post Baccalaureate Research Education Program (PREP) — R25GM089614, J, Lloyd, PI. Institutional Research and Academic Career Development Award (IRACDA)— K12GM093857, J. Lloyd, PI; Health Educational Research Opportunities for Teachers (HERO-T) — 5R25DA036915-02, R. Hargraves, PI.

The Bridges to the Baccalaureate: Dream to Goal — R25GM102795, K. Kester, PI, is administered by the Department of Biology.

 

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