“You’re doing something really important with people who are important to you,” Paul Worsley remarks when asked about having his younger brothers Caleb and Adam as lab mates. The trio are undergraduate students working in the lab of Santimukul Santra, Ph.D., at Pittsburg State University in Pittsburg, Kansas.
All three brothers are part of the Kansas IDeA Networks of Biomedical Research Excellence (K-INBRE). Paul is currently a junior majoring in biology and history. He plans to go to medical school when he graduates, but his time in the lab has given him a love for research—and has even led him to toy with the idea of going to graduate school instead. His twin brothers Caleb and Adam are only freshmen, but they both think they want to pursue scientific research when they graduate.
When Paul was a sophomore, he applied for a K-INBRE research spot in Dr. Santra’s lab and was immediately accepted. He quickly realized that organic chemistry in the lab was much different—and more exciting—than anything he’d seen in the classroom. “I like organic synthesis because it really tests your knowledge,” he says. “Answering exam questions is way different than actually doing it in a lab.” Despite the challenges that came with research, Paul was clearly doing great work because one day Dr. Santra joked, “Hey, you got any brothers?” Paul responded, “Actually, yes.”
“One thing that we try to develop in students is a sense of belonging and scientific identity,” says Edwin Barea-Rodriguez, Ph.D., the director of the Research Training Initiative for Student Enhancement (RISE) program at the University of Texas, San Antonio (UTSA). The program provides undergraduate and graduate students from underrepresented backgrounds with research experiences, professional development opportunities, and faculty mentorships. The UTSA RISE program has helped hundreds of students build strong foundations for scientific careers over its more than 20-year history. Here, we share the stories of three students who have benefited from RISE.
Support Beyond the Lab
After earning her bachelor’s degree in biochemistry, Kaira Church knew she loved research but wasn’t sure if graduate school was right for her. She took a job as a lab technician in the research group of Astrid Cardona, Ph.D., a professor of molecular microbiology and immunology at UTSA, where she learned firsthand what being a graduate student entailed. She was also introduced to RISE and was impressed by the variety of opportunities it offered. She decided to pursue a Ph.D. and applied to the program.
Kaira is now in her fourth year as a RISE trainee. “I really like the professional development and the networking that RISE offers,” she says. “A lot of science majors are stuck in the lab all the time. RISE ensures that we’re meeting people in our field so we have plenty of job opportunities when we graduate.”
Providing undergraduate students with research opportunities and preparing them for STEM careers in biomedical sciences are key goals of INBREs across the country, including Idaho’s program. Here, we share Jenny’s and Steve’s stories and the pivotal role that INBRE played for them.
At 9 years old, Raven Delfina Otero-Symphony wanted to be an astronaut. As a fourth-year statistics student at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, she still dreams of working for NASA—but as a statistician. You might be surprised to learn that she spent high school and her first semester of college preparing for a career in music, convinced that science and mathematics weren’t for her.
Strings to Stats
Raven enjoyed and excelled in both STEM and humanities classes as a child. As she got older, her interest in STEM wasn’t encouraged, and she began to believe she “just wasn’t a science person.” She concentrated on music because she felt very supported in that pursuit. She played the viola—a stringed instrument slightly larger and deeper in tone than a violin—and performed in symphonies throughout high school.
Dr. Darden with her mentor, Dr. Philip Efron. Credit: Courtesy of Lyle Moldawer, Ph.D.
“I’m an African American woman from Memphis, Tennessee; you don’t see very many people like me in medicine or in science,” says Dijoia Darden, M.D. She’s working toward becoming an academic physician, which will allow her to treat patients, teach, and conduct research. “I’m hoping that as an academic physician, I can inspire other women, especially women of color, to pursue things they’re passionate about.”
A Path to Medicine
Dr. Darden was drawn to science from a young age, inspired by her microbiologist mother. She recalls that her mom often helped her create science fair projects, including one where she grew penicillin-producing bacteria taken from a lemon. Later on, during her high school summer breaks, Dr. Darden worked in a lab that studied how certain genes might contribute to cancer.
Dr. Ramos-Benítez researches interactions between pathogens—such as the viruses that cause Ebola and COVID-19—and their hosts. He’s also the founder and president of Ciencia en tus Manos (“Science in Your Hands”), a nonprofit organization that presents scientific information in Spanish and aims to provide a community to support the next generation of scientists.
Navajo students are contributing to public health efforts in diabetes, COVID-19, domestic violence, and maternal and child health through the Navajo Native American Research Center for Health (NARCH) Partnership. “Our goal is to really enhance the educational pathways available to Navajo students from high school to graduate school and beyond,” says Mark Bauer, Ph.D., a co-director of the Navajo NARCH Partnership and professor at Diné College—a tribal college on the Navajo Nation. (Diné means “the people” and is how Navajo people refer to themselves in their native language.)
As computers have advanced over the past few decades, researchers have been able to work with larger and more complex datasets than ever before. The science of using computers to investigate biological data is called bioinformatics, and it’s helping scientists make important discoveries, such as finding versions of genes that affect a person’s risk for developing various types of cancer. Many scientists believe that almost all biologists will use bioinformatics to some degree in the future.
However, bioinformatics isn’t always included in college biology programs, and many of today’s researchers received their training before bioinformatics was widely taught. To address these gaps, the bioinformatics cores of the five Northeast IDeA Networks of Biomedical Research Excellence (INBREs)—located in Maine, Rhode Island, Delaware, Vermont, and New Hampshire—have worked together to offer basic bioinformatics training to students and researchers. The collaboration started in 2009 with a project where researchers sequenced the genome of a fish called the little skate (Leucoraja erinacea) and used the data to develop trainings.
“What we’re trying to do is support the students’ attachment to being a scientist, to becoming part of the community,” says Douglas McMahon, Ph.D., the Stevenson Professor of Biological Sciences at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, and a co-director of Vanderbilt’s Maximizing Access to Research Careers (MARC) program. MARC focuses on undergraduates from diverse backgrounds who are in the biomedical sciences and plan to pursue a Ph.D. or M.D./Ph.D. degree after graduation.
For years, NIGMS has funded MARC programs throughout the United States and its territories; Vanderbilt joined their ranks in 2020. In June of that year, Dr. McMahon and Katherine Friedman, Ph.D., an associate professor of biological sciences at Vanderbilt and co-director of its MARC program, welcomed the initial cohort of six rising juniors. “MARC is a great opportunity because it focuses on helping people reach their Ph.D. goals who don’t really have others around them who know how to get there,” says Sim Plotkin, a molecular and cellular biology major. “For me, that’s really helpful because I’ll be the first in my family to graduate from college.”
During our Starting Your Own Lab webinar, attendees asked so many insightful questions that we ran out of time to respond to all of them. So we asked nine NIGMS early career investigators to tackle the most popular ones in short videos, which were featured on our social media. Now, you can watch the whole series on our YouTube channel.