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Program for underrepresented minority students in biomedical PhD programs wins coveted renewal

From left: Rajendram Rajnarayanan, students Anthony Jones and Kerri Pryce, and Margarita L. Dubocovich in a lab in Farber Hall. Photo: Meredith Forrest Kulwicki.

By GROVE POTTER

Published June 6, 2017

“When you recruit faculty, and they know we are actively recruiting underrepresented students, they are more apt to come here. They want to have a more diverse class.”
Margarita Dubocovich, SUNY Distinguished Professor senior associate dean for diversity and inclusion
Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences

UB’s ongoing efforts to recruit underrepresented students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) to its PhD programs have received a major boost from the National Institutes of Health, which renewed a five-year, $2.3 million grant to help fully fund scholarships.

The grant will pay for the first two years of graduate school in the biomedical and behavioral sciences for four students a year. Over the past five years, the program is credited with bringing 20 underrepresented students to UB. And more importantly, it is part of a pipeline of “catalysts” that is helping the university attract underrepresented students to prepare the next generation of scientists and professors.

“These students are highly recruited by other universities,” says Margarita Dubocovich, SUNY Distinguished Professor in the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology, Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, and senior associate dean for diversity and inclusion.

The grant is part of the Initiative for Maximizing Student Development (IMSD), a student development program for research-intensive institutions funded by NIH’s National Institute of General Medical Sciences. The prestigious grant was awarded to only 21 PhD training programs.

Numerous departments involved

Students admitted into UB’s IMSD can enroll in any of the following programs or departments: biological sciences, biomedical engineering, chemistry, psychology, pharmacology and toxicology, pharmaceutical sciences, the PhD program in biomedical sciences and the graduate division at Roswell Park Cancer Institute.

Dubocovich says the grant — combined with UB’s Institute for the Strategic Enhancement of Educational Diversity (iSEED) and its Collaborative Learning and Integrated Mentoring in the Biosciences (CLIMB) program — has helped UB recruit 37 underrepresented students in STEM and related fields to its graduate programs over the past five years. And the deans of seven schools at UB have pledged to fund one underrepresented student a year.

These PhD graduate students are a cohort that helped win the grant renewal, she says.

Helping diversify the ranks of the graduate programs has ramifications across the university.

“When you recruit faculty, and they know we are actively recruiting underrepresented students, they are more apt to come here,” Dubocovich says. “They want to have a more diverse class.”

National recruitment

Renewal of the grant was a significant win for Dubocovich and her co-leader in the recruitment efforts, Rajendram V. Rajnarayanan, assistant professor of pharmacology and toxicology.

“We must be doing something right,” says Rajnarayanan, who likens the IMSD grant to a biological catalyst that helps keep students moving toward successful graduation and leadership roles in their scientific communities.

Dubocovich and Rajnarayanan attend conferences and speak to college groups to help recruit students to the university. In addition, they have established programs to bring promising undergraduates to campus in the summer for a research training program.

“We go and visit schools and speak passionately about research, so the students see it and want to be involved,” Rajnarayanan says. “That’s how it works.”

“We recruit nationally,” Dubocovich adds. “We bring them here so they can learn about UB and see whether they want to come here for graduate school.

“Owing to the IMSD program, the number of admissions offers made to students from diverse backgrounds has more than doubled,” she says. “The total number of underrepresented PhD students with thesis mentors in the Department of  Pharmacology and Toxicology increased from 18 percent (2 out of 11) in 2011 to 58 percent (11 out of 19) in fall 2016.

“Similarly, first-year student enrollment in the PhD program in biomedical sciences has increased from 8 percent in 2008-11 to 24 percent in 2012-15. Together, these data highlight the broader impact of the IMSD program in student enrollment at UB.”

First two years are key

Rajnarayanan says the university has “built a pipeline” for the students, starting with the summer program and continuing through graduate school, that includes mentoring and research opportunities. Under the IMSD grant, PhD students have individual mentoring during the first two years of the program and regularly gather as a group.

“Statistically, if a student makes it through the first two years, they stay for the entire program,” he says.

All students seeking an IMSD grant must first be accepted into a PhD program, and then the individual school will nominate them for the grant. Each year, up to 18 students are nominated and out of those, four students are accepted.