Article first appeared in the spring 2012 issue of the Dean’s Discovery Report.

In the United States, educators have made only slow gains in recruiting minorities into the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

In 2010, the National Science Board reported that not only are underrepresented minorities disproportionately absent in these so-called STEM fields, there's little short-term hope for improvement. Data shows even promising students from lower-income families are losing ground as they move through the educational system.

It's a challenge for educators who would like to increase the number of minorities in health and science disciplines.

"Given the incidence of chronic disease in underrepresented populations, there is a need for more underrepresented people in research and in positions of leadership, so that they can ensure that those health problems are adequately addressed," said Suzanne Barbour, Ph.D., a professor of biochemistry and molecular biology.

Over the past few years, she has seen VCU move to the forefront in tackling the national problem. The university currently boasts $1.3 million in grants supporting six different programs that are opening opportunities for underrepresented minorities.

Four of those programs are funded through grants from the NIH's Division of Training, Workforce Development and Diversity. That makes VCU one of only two institutions in the country to reach that level of support, an achievement that Barbour called "a huge vote of confidence from the NIH."

Today's portfolio of programs got its start in 2007 when Barbour together with staff in the VCU Center on Health Disparities ran a summer program that accepted undergraduates from colleges around the U.S. and placed them in a nationwide network of labs. When that program proved successful, she and colleagues began securing funding for additional opportunities, including year-round programs that would keep trainees on VCU's campuses. These programs have benefitted from the leadership of a committed cadre of VCU faculty who serve as principal investigators, including Drs. Paul Fisher (Human and Molecular Genetics), Rakesh Kukreja (Internal Medicine), Joyce Lloyd (Human and Molecular Genetics), John Ryan (Biology) and Barbour.

"Summer programs serve an important purpose, but we wanted to provide students more continuous exposure and immersion in research," Barbour said. Organizers also wanted to deepen the pool of prospective students interested in pursuing science degrees at VCU.

A case in point

Ph.D. candidate Allen Owens has benefitted from two of the medical school's programs that draw underrepresented minorities into science careers: first a year-long stint in the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology with the support of the Postbaccalaureate Research Education Program and now pursuing a doctorate as a member of the Initiative for Maximizing Student Diversity program.

One of those students was Allen Owens, a North Carolina native with an undergraduate biology degree. He parlayed his training into a first job as a lab technician at a chemical company that produced raw materials for soaps and other hygiene products. But he was intrigued by the product development work undertaken by the company's chemists as they tested and improved the company's products. He wondered if that might be the direction he'd like to see his career head.

To gain research experience, he applied to the Postbaccalaureate Research Education Program. Known as PREP, the year-round research training program for recent college graduates is run by Joyce Lloyd, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Human and Molecular Genetics.

Lloyd guided Owens in choosing the lab where he would work in over the course of his PREP year. Because of his interest in how drugs interact with the body - and a desire to learn about something completely different from anything he'd already studied - he was drawn to the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology where he found a mentor in professor Aron Lichtman, Ph.D.

Owens described the program as challenging, pushing him beyond his comfort level. "As an undergraduate, you learn about science," he explains. "But to be someone who develops science is a different process." The program gave him the research experience he wanted, along with opportunities to present his work. It confirmed that he liked the world of research and served as a launching pad into graduate school.

Owens is now pursuing a Ph.D. on the MCV Campus, this time with the support of Barbour's IMSD program - short for the Initiative for Maximizing Student Diversity. The year-round research training program assists junior Ph.D. students by supplying funding for the first two years of graduate school along with Barbour's advice for navigating the choices and challenges of an advanced degree.

Now a few months into the program, Owens soon will be faced with choosing his field of study. To prepare, he is rotating through three labs in different departments. He's finding that not only do the areas of study differ, so do the labs' size, atmosphere and even the techniques that are routinely used. He'll take all of that into consideration when he chooses his home lab.

A critical mass

As home to six different programs that are opening opportunities for underrepresented minorities, VCU offers an unusual concentration of students who share similar goals and challenges. Because the programs support different stages of a student's training, it is possible for a student to advance from one program and enter another, much as Owens did. The programs reside under a single umbrella, VCU's Center on Health Disparities, providing opportunities to build a sense of community and camaraderie. That's what happened last fall when more than 20 students from different programs traveled to St. Louis for the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students - the largest professional conference for students studying biomedical and behavioral sciences.

Barbour and Lloyd are also on the lookout for opportunities for the more advanced students to mentor their junior colleagues. Barbour says that there's a real sense of momentum building, as the programs bring a critical mass of students onto campus.

Barbour and her colleagues highlight these programs as instruments of institutional change. According to Barbour, "Our programs have come along at just the right time to be a cornerstone of VCU's Quest for Distinction. As a result of our programs, we've seen the emergence of a Student Research Organization, a new position in the Department of Biology for an undergraduate research coordinator and the Laboratory Skills Bootcamp, a hands-on workshop to develop research skills. Thus, the programs will leave a legacy that impacts more than just the students who receive direct support."

Barbour measures the programs' success by the nearly 200 students, who've hailed from 19 states, including Virginia, North Carolina, California, Alaska and Hawaii. Some of the earliest participants are starting to secure positions in their chosen fields. A graduate from the year-round training program for postdocs known as IRACDA has gone on to a faculty position at Howard University's medical school. This May, the first two MARC Scholars will earn their undergraduate degrees with plans to enter Ph.D. programs. Another measure of success is the continued involvement of research mentors, more than 50 at VCU and nationwide - many of whom have trained students year after year.

"At present, one out of two undergraduates in China is majoring in a discipline that could lead to a career in biomedical research. In the U.S., the number is less than one in five," says Barbour. "Given the changing demographics of our country, with nearly a third described as minority, any response we make has to include increasing the numbers of African American, Hispanic and other minority undergraduate students in STEM disciplines. VCU has positioned itself to meet this challenge, and I'm honored to work with some of the talented trend busters who represent the first wave of our country's response."

Summer Programs
Health Educational Research Opportunities
Summer research program for underrepresented undergraduates and professional students from any institution
Short-Term Education Program for Underrepresented Persons
Summer research program for undergraduates from any institution
Year-Round Programs
Initiative for Maximizing Student Diversity
Year-round research training program for undergraduate freshman and sophomores and first and second year Ph.D. students from VCU
Institutional Research and Academic Career Development Award
Year-round research training program for postdoctorals in training at VCU
Minority Access to Research Careers
Year-round research training program for undergraduate junior and senior honors students from VCU
Postbaccalaureate Research Education Program
Year-round research training program for recent college graduates from any institution, but training at VCU