A summer of real-life research

VCU undergraduates participate in unique hands-on research experiences at universities across the country

This summer, seven Virginia Commonwealth University undergraduate research trainees are expanding their knowledge, mastering the skill of critical thinking and digging deep to find answers to their questions through real-life research in laboratories at partner universities across the country.

For the first time since the launch of the VCU Center on Health Disparitiesresearch training programs, students are venturing beyond the VCU campus to engage in hands-on learning at Brandeis University, Harvard University, University of California at San Diego, University of Michigan, University of Miami and University of Oregon.

Five of the students are current participants in VCU Center on Health Disparities research and training programs, including Initiative for Maximizing Student Diversity Scholars program and Minority Access to Research Careers. Two of the undergraduates are future participants of the IMSD or MARC programs.

The popularity of spending a summer engaged in hands-on research is a growing trend.

Sarah Golding, Ph.D.
Sarah Golding, Ph.D.

“In the past three years, I have seen student interest in summer research programs blossom, both here and at other institutions across the country,” said Sarah Golding, Ph.D., instructor of biology in the VCU College of Humanities and Sciences, and associate director of undergraduate research training for the VCU Center on Health Disparities.

“This speaks to a shift in the student culture here at VCU where biomedical research is seen as a fun and exciting way to spend the summer. Our students are now gaining access into competitive programs around the country, such as Harvard and Michigan, which suggests the rest of the country thinks we are doing a pretty good job training our students.”

The IMSD and MARC research training programs, which are supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health, are just two of six offered through the VCU Center on Health Disparities. The programs – some for high schoolers, others for undergraduates – are designed to spark interest and bring more underrepresented minorities into the biomedical sciences.

John Ryan, Ph.D.
John Ryan, Ph.D.

Programs like MARC and IMSD demonstrate how committed VCU is to promoting diversity in the sciences,” said John Ryan, Ph.D., professor of biology in the VCU College of Humanities and Sciences, and co-principal investigator on the IMSD grant. He is the principal investigator for the MARC program grant.

“These competitive NIH-funded grants also show that VCU is a great place to do science — for people of all backgrounds. VCU prides itself on diversity, and the sciences are no exception. Moreover, the funding from these grants has had a big impact on how we teach all science majors. This money has allowed us to provide a boot camp-styled research training course and devote a lot more attention to placing undergraduates in the many productive research labs on both VCU campuses. So, while the grants may be focused on minority students, the end result is better science training for all VCU undergraduates.”

Recently, the NIH awarded the IMSD program a total of nearly $1.6 million for another five years. This will allow the program to be offered again – supporting undergraduates interested in progressing in the biomedical research field and providing opportunities such as these summer learning endeavors at other universities.

Below is a list of the students studying in laboratories across the country this summer:

·  Makeda Austin, studying at Brandeis University as part of a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Exceptional Research Opportunities Program. Austin is a biology major at VCU and is currently in the MARC program. She previously participated in the IMSD program at VCU.

·  Michael Kiflezghi is studying at the University of Oregon as part of the Summer Program for Undergraduate Research, where he is working with research mentors on a project titled, “Microfluidics, Diet, and Genetic Networks in C. elegans: Generating Unique Life Histories in Isogenic Worms.” Kiflezghi is a bioinformatics and information systems major with biology and chemistry minors, and is currently in the IMSD program.

·  Danice Alston, a VCU psychology major in the IMSD program, is studying at the University of Michigan through the Cancer Research Summer Internship program.

·  Brian Joseph, a VCU psychology major, is studying at the Miller School of Medicine at the University of Miami. He earned a spot in the Miami Motivation Program where he is taking first-year level medical classes including anatomy, anatomy lab, biochemistry, immunology, histology and bioethics, in order to prepare for the M.D. portion of his future career. He is also shadowing physicians at Jackson Memorial Hospital. Joseph is currently in the VCU MARC program, and is a past participant of the IMSD program.

·  Chad Frierson, a VCU chemistry major/math minor, is studying with a research mentor at University of California, San Diego. He is enrolled in the VCU MARC program.

·  Danyel Smith, a VCU anthropology major, is studying at the Harvard School of Public Health. She is participating in a summer program in epidemiology and conducting research on prostate cancer.

·  Filius Iyebote, a VCU biology major, is studying at the University of Iowa through the Summer Research Opportunity Program.

The IMSD and MARC programs are supported by NIH grants 2R25GM090084-05 and 5T34GM092447-05 respectively.

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