This article is from the archives of the UB Reporter.

A leg up for grad school

Published: July 4, 2011

Brittani Franklin attends Xavier University in New Orleans, Donteeno Todd attends Tougaloo College in Jackson, Miss., and Caitlin Nicholson attends Dartmouth College in Dartmouth, N.H. But all are spending the summer at UB, along with a dozen other undergraduates from as far away as Mayaguez, Puerto Rico, and as close as Buffalo.

The students, more than 60 percent of whom are minorities, came to UB to get something they cannot get elsewhere: the opportunity to live, work and breathe biosciences research while being mentored by top faculty through UB’s CLIMB UP (Collaborative Learning and Integrated Mentoring in the Biosciences Undergraduate Program) for Summer Research.

The emphasis is on exposure to research in the biosciences and mentoring toward graduate school, especially in fields related to drug discovery and translational science.

This year’s students, 16 in all, were chosen from a very talented pool of 65 applicants who applied from across the U.S. All expenses, including room and board, are paid through funding from national organizations and from UB.

“The reason we created the program is because we don’t want these very talented students to give up,” says Margarita Dubocovich, chair of the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology, School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, and founder and director of CLIMB UP.

Dubocovich started the eight-week program in the summer of 2009, her first full year in Buffalo. CLIMB UP, now in its third year, is part of CLIMB, an umbrella program Dubocovich started at UB that provides similar types of mentoring experiences for biosciences students at the undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral levels. It was based on a similar effort she started at Northwestern University, where she previously was a faculty member.

“I was inspired to create CLIMB when I started seeing students, many of them minorities, going into PhD programs in an environment where they had no training and no mentoring,” she says. “It was sink or swim. These were talented students who had made it to graduate school. But they were away from their families and friends, some of them for the first time, and they found it very difficult to adaptto a new city, friends and graduate school in general; some of them had to work in order to pay for school. By the end of the first quarter, many would be getting Cs and Ds and they would be asked to leave.”

Dubocovich believed that with the right training and mentoring, these students would, in fact, be able to thrive in graduate school and beyond.

The program’s philosophy is to help students who are excited about doing scientific research succeed at every level so they can keep advancing.

“I don’t want people to quit. I wanted to create a program where they can see what is possible, where they can advance through all the steps necessary in order to succeed,” Dubocovich says.

Each CLIMB UP student is assigned a faculty mentor, with whom they work on a specific research project that they are expected to complete and make a presentation on by the end of the program. Faculty mentors participating in CLIMB UP come from numerous departments, including pharmacology and toxicology, and physiology and biophysics in the medical school; pharmaceutical sciences in the School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences; and psychology in the College of Arts and Sciences.

“We want to get these people interested in going into biosciences and in pursuing PhD degrees in research,” says Raj V. Rajnarayanan, assistant professor of pharmacology and toxicology and assistant director of UB’s CLIMB UP. “We like to think of the program as a catalyst. In one summer, we expect a big transformation in these students.”

Brittani Franklin, whose hometown is Chicago, says that through CLIMB UP, she is working for the first time in a neuroscience laboratory, studying the differentiation of neuronal stem cells with Fraser Sim, assistant professor of pharmacology and toxicology.

“This is a challenge that I will learn from,” she says. “You never know what doors will open from having this experience.”

UB senior Tatiana Shaurova agrees.

“This is a very productive way to spend a summer,” she says, noting that if it weren’t for CLIMB UP, she would be working at any summer job she could find.

Her research project with Rajnarayanan involves studying derivatives of the artificial sweetener aspartame.

The students have frequent opportunities to interact with role models and with each other. There are weekly breakfast meetings and frequent social gatherings and field trips to the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus and Niagara Falls, which foster personal interactions between students, faculty mentors and UB graduate students.

Training in lab skills also is emphasized. During the first week, students spend each morning in a three-hour “Introduction to Lab Skills” class, a crash course in a broad spectrum of skills, from pipetting and autoclaving to measuring liquids, cell counting, gel preparation and lab safety.

Networking opportunities are provided and workshops are held on career options.

“We are creating a pipeline of students who have the skills they will need to succeed in the biosciences in graduate school and beyond,” says Dubocovich. “We have created a program to help nurture these students so that they will succeed.”

Funding for the program comes from the McNair Scholars Program at UB, the Zannoni Summer Undergraduate Research Fellow Awards (through ASPET), the MARC (Minority Access to Research Careers) programs at individual institutions and the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology-MARC Summer Research Opportunity Program.