A group of five people engaging in a discussion.
Joyce Lloyd meets with students from the IRACDA program. (Photo by Tom Kojcsich, University Marketing)

Unique program for postdoctoral students combines research with teaching

New NIH grant allows VCU to continue to serve underrepresented groups in science

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VCU is home to a program that few other universities across the country can lay claim to. The Institutional Research and Academic Career Development Award is a three-year postdoctoral program that supports minority students in exploring, choosing and launching careers in science.

VCU IRACDA, funded by the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of General Medical Sciences, combines a traditional mentored postdoctoral research experience with an opportunity to develop teaching skills through formal training and mentored assignments at local historically black universities. The program recently received a $2.5 million grant that ensures its continuation until 2024.  

IRACDA fellows — students from VCU and its partner institutions, Virginia Union University and Virginia State University — are matched with a research mentor at VCU and a teaching mentor at one of the partner institutions.

Allowing postdoctoral fellows to conduct research and teach is how the program differentiates itself from normal postdoctoral studies, which tend to focus on research. Four fellows are currently enrolled in the VCU program. Fourteen fellows have graduated from VCU and 12 of those graduates are currently faculty — most at smaller universities where they can teach and conduct research with undergraduates. 

Joyce Lloyd, Ph.D., a professor and vice chair of education in the Department of Human and Molecular Genetics in the School of Medicine and co-director of VCU IRACDA, recently spoke to VCU News about the program.

What are the requirements to participate as a postdoc?

They have to be within a year of completing their Ph.D., they have to have a publication record, they have to have papers to show they have the research credentials, and they have to have an interest in teaching. It is kind of a dual criteria with the teaching, which is somewhat different from the research criteria, which is what everyone looks for in a postdoc.

What are the requirements for being a research mentor at VCU?

The [research] mentors are scientists at VCU, mostly in the School of Medicine. The mentors need to have an active research program, they need to be publishing regularly and they need to have funding — generally federal funding — in order to run their laboratory, because we want to put the postdoc in a position where they are going to succeed.

What are the mentor’s responsibilities?

Being a postdoc is a transitional time. They have already earned a Ph.D., so they have some idea of how research works. They know how to design experiments and how to carry out some of those experiments. But typically they are going into something new, so there are some things they would need to learn about that their mentor would need to guide them on. Typically, early on there is more of that guidance needed than toward the end. 

You mentioned VSU and VUU.  Are there other schools that participate with VCU in this program?

These are our two partner schools. VCU is a big place, so we have a lot of faculty involved. Of those 18 trainees, most of them have been with different faculty. We have had at least 16 faculty members that have been involved.

What are the specific benefits to minority students?

I see two benefits. So not all the postdocs that come into the IRACDA program are from underrepresented groups. However, 30 percent of them are. And that is higher than any other postdoctoral program. It is higher than the general group of postdocs at VCU. I think that postdocs from underrepresented groups, for whatever reason, feel comfortable in IRACDA and are comfortable with VCU.

And the other benefit is to the students at Virginia Union, Virginia State and VCU. Typically the IRACDA postdoc does some teaching at VCU, a few lectures here and there. It is of benefit to [VCU undergraduates] to hear about research, to maybe see someone who looks like them who does research, so it helps students as well as the IRACDA postdocs.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

Just that it is very rewarding because they are so successful with 12 out of 14 in faculty positions across the country and the other two are doing great stuff as well, in science. I like to see other people succeed.