“I’m most proud of how this program is truly impacting the diversity of academia by including individuals from backgrounds historically underrepresented in STEM and the biomedical research workforce,” says JoAnn Trejo, Ph.D., professor at University of California San Diego (UCSD) and director of San Diego’s Institutional Research and Academic Career Development Award (IRACDA). The program, now in its 20th year of NIGMS funding, aims to train a diverse group of postdoctoral fellows (postdocs) for both the teaching and independent research aspects of a career as a professor in the biomedical sciences.
The San Diego IRACDA focuses on preparing its fellows for tenure-track positions at different types of institutions, including research-intensive universities. Fellows typically go through a 3-year program where they work in a research lab at UCSD, teach at one of the two “partner” schools (both of which are minority-serving institutions), and take career development courses in skillsets like effectively mentoring, running a cutting-edge research lab, and innovatively redesigning undergraduate science courses. Fellows also mentor students at the partner schools, helping them prepare graduate school applications, putting them through mock interviews, educating them in research, and teaching them how to read and understand scientific literature.
When he started high school in Mexico, Pedro Márquez-Zacarías, Ph.D., wanted to be a politician. However, as he became aware of issues like corruption, he began looking into other fields. Chemistry fascinated him, so he enrolled in a class at his school that was later canceled partway through the year. He then joined a biology class because it included a unit on biochemistry, and through that experience, found that he enjoyed other aspects of biology as well—so much so that he went on to compete in the International Biology Olympiad, a competition for high school biology students.
After graduating from high school, Dr. Márquez-Zacarías majored in biomedical sciences at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México and discovered a passion for ecology and evolution. During a class activity where students had to present scientific papers, the work of evolutionary biologist William Croft Ratcliff, Ph.D. riveted him. Dr. Márquez-Zacarías began an email conversation with Dr. Ratcliff that led to visiting his NIGMS-supported lab at the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) in Atlanta.
Dr. Bobylev focuses on training students to conduct rigorous, meaningful research and to communicate it clearly to a variety of audiences, including the general public, scientists, and policymakers. He believes that this emphasis on strong communication skills is one of the reasons why his students were often selected for Posters on the Hill—a prestigious annual event where undergraduate researchers presented their work to lawmakers in Washington, D.C. Since 2008, 10 of his mentees were chosen to participate.
“I feel really pleased with how well our students have done despite entering the program in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic,” says Katherine Friedman, Ph.D., an associate professor of biological sciences at Vanderbilt and a co-director of its MARC program. Four of the six first-cohort students are entering doctoral programs in fall 2022, and the other two have made preparations to pursue higher degrees at a later date.
Members of the league work with elementary students across the country to give them a sense of belonging to the veterinary profession. “I’m most proud of bringing people together who share the mission and vision with all their heart,” Pink Phoenix remarks. “Nobody can just be a member of the league. You have to earn the cape.” The league has over 400 certified role models throughout the country who are either veterinarians—VetaHumanz—or veterinary school students—VetaHumanz in training.
“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.