This is the first post in a new series highlighting NIGMS’ efforts toward developing a robust, diverse and well-trained scientific workforce.
“A lot of people would never guess that I’m in research and I take pride in that. I want to be able to represent people that don’t even go this far,” Chyann Richard, 20, says.
Currently a junior at California State University, Long Beach (CSULB), Richard is majoring in psychology. After she graduates with a bachelor’s degree in 2018, she plans to continue to a Ph.D. program and do research in behavioral neuroscience.
Richard is among a select group of undergraduate college students participating in the Building Infrastructure Leading to Diversity (BUILD) program. The BUILD programs focus on finding innovative approaches to increase student engagement in the biomedical sciences, through interventions at student, faculty and institutional levels. As a BUILD scholar, Richard is conducting laboratory research and preparing for graduate school through career development seminars, presentations and other activities.
Richard loves how research introduces her to new ideas and allows her to share these concepts with others, including her parents.
“Because they’ve been teaching me my whole life … now I’ve got a one-up because I know about research and they don’t. That’s really fun,” she says.
Richard’s interest in behavioral neuroscience is both personal and scientific. During Richard’s junior year of high school, her mother was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder. This sparked Richard to take an Advanced Placement (AP) psychology course, where she began learning about the prevalence of and treatments for such disorders.
“[The class] started bringing [my mom’s condition] into perspective – that it wasn’t just some random thing,” Richard says.
The coursework came naturally to her, and Richard dedicated herself to the class, even spending spring break of her senior year preparing for the AP exam (she passed!).
Richard’s college pathway hasn’t been easy, but she describes herself as highly motivated and her optimistic outlook helps her stay on task and focused.
Before she got to CSULB, she was enrolled at Cerritos College, a community college near her hometown of Inglewood, California. At Cerritos, Richard played basketball, took extra courses and held a job. She’s confident that this experience with time management, and her current work with BUILD activities, are preparing her for a successful graduate career.
“When people keep telling me, ‘Graduate school is a lot of time,’ – I been through that … It doesn’t deter me from wanting to do it,” she says.
A research methods professor at Cerritos College informed Richard about the BUILD program at CSULB and explained how it helps undergraduate students conduct research and prepare for graduate school. The idea of doing research as a career was completely new for Richard. Before, she thought that being in psychology meant having a job at a hospital. Now, as a BUILD scholar, Richard explains to her family and friends that being a researcher is a viable career, where she might look for ways to improve treatments for a variety of ailments.
Through BUILD, Richard works in CSULB Assistant Professor Michelle Barrack’s lab, which has a multidisciplinary focus on health and nutrition. The lab is looking to validate a nutrition screening survey as part of its studies on the female athlete triad, a collection of three interrelated conditions that may affect female athletes: low energy availability, irregular menstruation and osteoporosis or low bone mass. Richard points out that other surveys have been developed, but they don’t address specific symptoms and early signs of the triad. The survey will also have applications for male athletes as an assessment for nutritional deficits.
As the sole psychology major in the lab, Richard contributes a unique viewpoint, such as considering the effect a person’s psychological state has on participation in nutrition surveys and hesitancy in answering certain questions.
Richard is also enthusiastic about the mentoring she’s receiving from Barrack.
“I really love my mentor,” Richard says. “She’s helpful and she’s always available.”
Richard’s advice for students interested in research is “Do not get discouraged” even if they want to pursue a different career path than their parents or friends. She describes her family as “regular middle class, working people,” who have supported her because they want her to do well in life. This motivates her to succeed, as does overcoming some stereotypes about what a scientist should look like.
“If you really want to do it, make sure you get it done,” Richard says.