Empowering underrepresented students in the biomedical sciences

A decade of funding from a trio of federal grants has made VCU a leader in finding talent the science and engineering professions have been missing.

A student working in a laboratory.
While working on his undergraduate biology degree at VCU, Nisan Hubbard learned about the Center on Health Disparities' Initiative for Maximizing Student Development Scholars Program. In the program, Hubbard’s love for research blossomed — along with a newfound love of teaching. (Photo courtesy of Brian Strickland)

Recent statistics strongly suggest that our society is missing a lot of potential talent in the science and engineering professions. And it has been — for years.

The National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics reported just last year that certain minorities, including African Americans, Hispanics and people with disabilities, remain underrepresented in science and engineering professions and as recipients of science and engineering degrees. Black students earned only about 9% of the biomedical doctoral degrees awarded in the U.S. in 2017, and Hispanic or Latino students earned about 15%.

Since 2010, Virginia Commonwealth University has been home to a set of research and training programs designed to address these disparities and to tap that missing potential. Housed in the School of Medicine’s Center on Health Disparities, these programs train future biomedical researchers at the undergraduate, graduate, postbaccalaureate and postdoctoral levels.

VCU is one of only two institutions in the U.S. to offer these programs at all levels of higher education, thanks to three grants that the university has maintained for more than a decade. Since the programs began, a total of $12.9 million has been awarded, serving more than 180 students and having a larger ripple effect as these students go on to teach the next generation of biomedical researchers.

The latest grant, $2.5 million awarded last year by the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of General Medical Sciences, ensures that the Institutional Research and Academic Career Development Awards, a three-year postdoctoral program and one of several programs at the Center on Health Disparities, will continue supporting students through 2024.

Passionate faculty members helped drive the creation of these programs, and they’re deeply committed to helping students get the most out of them. Joyce Lloyd, Ph.D., professor and vice chair of education and faculty affairs in the VCU Department of Human and Molecular Genetics, is involved in running all of the center’s research training programs.

A diminutive woman with a hearty laugh and a kind demeanor, Lloyd, a recognized biomedical researcher in projects related to the future treatment of sickle cell anemia, carries an encyclopedic knowledge of the students who participated in the programs over the years and can rattle off long lists of their achievements since graduation.

“I have a passion for making sure we get all the talent into science, not just a fraction of it,” Lloyd said.

Empowering students

Lloyd dreams of getting more students into careers that will broaden the scope of what can be studied and accomplished through the biomedical sciences.

In its 2019 report on “Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering,” the National Science Foundation writes, “Scientists and trainees from diverse backgrounds and life experiences bring different perspectives, creativity and individual enterprise to address complex scientific problems.”

Those different backgrounds and life experiences, however, also can make the path to academia a tricky one. Lloyd recalls her own journey as a first-generation college student. She lost her father at 14 and found herself working her way through college with little knowledge of scholarships or academia.

While she is quick to say these challenges don’t compare to some she’s seen students face and overcome — including getting a degree and applying to graduate school while homeless — her experiences gave her a sense of empathy and an understanding of the importance of support and mentorship.

Joyce Lloyd.
Joyce Lloyd, a professor in the Department of Human and Molecular Genetics, has “a passion for making sure we get all the talent into science, not just a fraction of it.” (Allen Jones, VCU University Relations)

Lloyd said that when she first talked with other faculty members about creating programs to help train underrepresented biomedical scientists, she wasn’t thinking big enough. She credits Suzanne Barbour, Ph.D., who was a professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the time, with having the more ambitious vision of a set of programs that could support students at all levels of study. Lloyd said Barbour was instrumental in identifying a place in the medical school that could house the programs together, recognizing the value of making it easy for participants at all levels to connect for networking and mentorship.

The Center on Health Disparities was focused at the time on research and community engagement, but its mission aligned with that of the research and training programs. It soon became a leader in addressing disparities among scientists who work in health-related fields.

The VCU six-year graduation rates for African American and Hispanic undergraduates already exceeds national averages: 63% for African American students and 64% for Hispanic students, compared with 40% and 54%, respectively. However, the Center on Health Disparities’ program for undergraduates goes far beyond that. Ninety-eight percent of participants in that program, who also are from underrepresented groups, have earned a bachelor’s degree.

The center’s programs boast a range of impressive results. Twelve out of 14 postdoctoral trainees have entered tenure-eligible positions. Eighty-eight percent of participants in the undergraduate program are pursuing careers in the biomedical workforce.

Ninety-two percent of postbaccalaureate students who enrolled in Ph.D. programs since 2011 have earned their degree or are still actively pursuing it. Meanwhile, a national study conducted by the Council of Graduate Schools found that less than 60% of African American and Hispanic students enrolled in doctoral programs earned the credential within 10 years.

Serendipity

Discovering the training programs on the MCV Campus “felt like serendipity,” said Nisan Hubbard, Ph.D., now a postdoctoral fellow in cell biology and physiology at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

“There’s this sort of misunderstanding among students that if you’re interested in biology, you have to go straight to medical school. I learned that there are multiple ways of being able to study biology,” Hubbard said.

While working on his undergraduate biology degree at VCU, Hubbard participated in an eight-week research program called Step Up, designed to introduce underrepresented persons to the experience of conducting research. There, he learned about the Center on Health Disparities’ Initiative for Maximizing Student Development, which offers mentorship, training and financial support for undergraduate students. In the program, Hubbard’s love for research blossomed — along with a newfound love of teaching.

“Mentors introduced me to different aspects of biology, but also the importance of passing that knowledge on to the next generation,” he said. “I have had a lot of mentors who helped facilitate my love of science and create opportunities for me to participate in all these different endeavors.”

Aside from training in conducting research, Hubbard said he can’t overstate the importance of the soft skills he learned through the Center on Health Disparities programs, such as networking and public speaking.

“The amount of opportunities the programs provided for a growing scientist was a good kind of overwhelming,” he said. “These are programs that are essential to increasing diversity and creating pipelines to continue increasing it at multiple levels of academia, getting additional deserving people into these seats.”

Two people looking at a sample.
Hubbard calls Suzanne Barbour one of his “science moms” in recognition of the value of her mentorship during his time at VCU and now at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, where he is a postdoctoral fellow and she is a professor of biochemistry and biophysics. (Photo courtesy of Brian Strickland)

Thrive and not just survive

Nicole Jimenez, now a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology on the MCV Campus, participated in the Postbaccalaureate Research Education Program. The one-year paid biomedical research training program, which Lloyd jokingly compares to “finishing school,” offers graduate level courses and mentorship.

Jimenez said she found the program at a point in her life when she knew she wanted to pursue scientific research but didn’t know how. She felt a need for guidance around how to conduct more clinically relevant science, as well as peer and mentor connections, both of which she found through the program.

Jimenez not only learned how to pursue a career in scientific research, she also discovered a passion for advocacy and community engagement, particularly around diversity, inclusion and how mental health is addressed on graduate and professional school campuses. Today, she is a peer health educator at VCU’s Health Promotion and Well-Being Center, also known as The Well.

“The [center’s] programs help trainees thrive and not just survive in graduate school,” Jimenez said. “Academia can sometimes be hard, and this makes the transitions easier. I know the things I’ve learned at VCU will last a lifetime.”

Three people seated at a table in a laboratory.
Nicole Jimenez, center, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology on the MCV Campus, works in a lab with Nana Afia Twumasi-Ankrah and Dylan Lee, who also participated in programs at the Center on Health Disparities. (Tom Kojcsich, VCU University Relations)

Confirming and empowering

VCU’s Institutional Research and Academic Career Development Awards is unique among the research and training programs because it’s not only open to students from underrepresented minorities, but also to students who are committed to teaching at institutions with diverse student bodies.

Andrea “Andy” Beyer, Ph.D., refers to herself as a first-generation college student and farm girl. She recalls her family trying to figure out how to apply for college loans and tuition waivers and her own lack of knowledge about what the college experience would be like.

“Everything I knew was based on TV and movies,” Beyer said.

She wasn’t sure how to balance between classes she wanted to take and classes she had to take, wasn’t sure of the differences between a minor and a concentration, and didn’t understand the value of internships. She didn’t know you could continue to graduate school, much less how to go about it.

“Luckily, some faculty members and mentors recognized my deer-in-the-headlights look,” Beyer said.

Beyer grew up in a primarily white community, without much knowledge of other cultures. But by the time she earned her doctorate, she was interested in teaching, especially other first-generation college students. Since there’s overlap between first-generation students and underrepresented minorities, she found her way to the Institutional Research and Academic Career Development Awards.

A professor speaking to a classroom of students.
Andrea “Andy” Beyer, assistant professor of biology at Virginia State University, teaches microbiology to freshmen. She says the teaching skills she learned at the Center on Health Disparities helped make her career what it is today. (Photo courtesy of Kevin Schindler)

“The program was an answer to prayers,” Beyer said. “It was a really confirming and empowering experience.” She valued learning how to balance the roles of research and teaching, receiving candid feedback from mentors about the realities of academia and receiving structured guidance toward improving the skills of a professor.

After completing the program, Beyer found a home at Virginia State University as an assistant professor of biology.

“I fell in love with the students,” she said.

Beyer loves introducing freshmen microbiology students to the experience of doing research. She also aspires to be the “internship queen,” introducing students to all the internship opportunities that she wasn’t aware of as a college student.

“We need people to realize that bringing more diverse groups to the STEM fields may not be a simple process,” Beyer said. “Some institutions assume students will just naturally go on to these opportunities. But it comes down to awareness and patience and being resourceful, finding ways that you can assist students or provide them the tools to empower them.”

This story originally appeared in 12th and Marshall magazine under the headline “An expanded pipeline equips and empowers underrepresented students.”

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