The rates of degree completion and persistence in research careers for graduate students from underrepresented minority (URM) communities are disheartening. This underrepresentation has an additional negative impact on communities of color as URM scientists are more likely than non-URMs to study issues specific to minority communities.
The Stony Brook University Initiative for Maximizing Student Development: Maximizing Excellence in Research for Graduate Education (IMSD-MERGE) program aims to address this very issue, with a mission of increasing the number of URM and disadvantaged students completing biological and biomedical science degrees at Stony Brook and preparing them for advancement into successful research careers. In support of this initiative, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) recently awarded the program a renewal with a new five-year grant worth $2.2 million.
“The goals of the grant are to broaden participation of students from URM backgrounds in biomedical research careers,” said J. Peter Gergen, professor, Department of Biochemistry and Cell Biology and principal investigator and director of the NIH IMSD-MERGE program at Stony Brook. “These students face significant challenges that extend from financial hurdles to social issues such as implicit bias and self-efficacy.”
The bulk of the funds will directly support trainees, and Gergen hopes to recruit five students into graduate programs in the biomedical sciences per year. He outlined two unique activities that have been impactful in the program.
“In the first iteration, we brought students to campus two or three weeks early for what we call the Heads Up program,” he said. “We have them meet each other and then go through activities created to help them get prepared for graduate school both intellectually and emotionally. We want to give them a sense of what things are going to be like here and be settled in when the semester starts.”
Gergen also describes a focus on metacognitive skills, what he calls thinking about thinking.
“If you did poorly on an exam, we ask the student to think about why they did poorly,” he said. “What was your study like? How did you review? What could you do to improve on the next one? Recognizing and addressing root causes increases the chances of sustained success moving forward.”
Gergen said the grant reaches across nine different programs in the biomedical sciences, extending from ecology and evolution to chemistry, molecular biology, neurobiology, microbiology, and biomedical engineering.
“Bridging across all these different programs creates a community of students that are from underrepresented backgrounds,” he said. “It’s a really valuable source of support when you can interact with people who have had similar experiences and challenges.”
A second signature feature of the program is an “Excellence in Mentoring Workshop.”
“In the first year, in most of the programs, students rotate in different labs to decide which one they want to join,” said Gergen. “Once they select a lab, we then bring the mentor and the mentee together in these workshops with the goal of establishing a productive, professional line of communication. Having a comfortable professional interaction with your faculty supervisor is probably the single most important thing and so, getting these two people to learn how to more effectively communicate with one another is critical.”
Greisly Nunez was in cohort 4 of the initial IMSD grant and participated in the Summer Heads Up session in 2017 and the mentoring workshop in the summer of 2018. “We were given access to several different labs and went over some exams for core classes,” said Nunez, a fifth year PhD student in molecular and cellular biology in the laboratory of Dr. A. Neiman. “The IMSD MERGE program was a great way for me to learn more about graduate school and about what I needed to succeed both in graduate school and beyond.”
Sheed Itaman, IMSD cohort 3 in 2016 and currently a sixth year PhD student in neuroscience in the laboratory of Dr. G. Enikolopov shared a similar experience. “I got to make great connections with other underrepresented students from different departments, have real conversations with my PI, access insightful trainings and lectures, and got guidance on post-graduation opportunities,” said Itaman. “I’m thankful that I was given the opportunity to join the IMSD community, and I hope future students have the same uplifting experience I’ve had.”
The Excellence in Mentoring workshops feature three sessions; the first focusing on communication, the second on expectations, and a third one on what Gergen calls “understanding” that coalesces the first two sessions.
“The goal of the understanding session is to get both sides on the same page,” he said. “If the trainee doesn’t understand what they’re supposed to be doing and is nervous about saying that they don’t understand, they are going to get stuck. We try to uncover the questions they’re afraid to ask and then have a conversation about those things.”
As Gergen works to broaden participation, the sessions also focus on diversity.
“Clearly, African American and Latina scholars are underrepresented in academia in general, and certainly in the biomedical sciences,” he said. “But the components of diversity are now much broader. We need to always be cognizant of that as a program, and we want our students to be aware of that as well.”
The administration of the grant is through the Center for Inclusive Education (CIE) in the Graduate School.
“The CIE supports approximately 150 PhD students from underrepresented and disadvantaged backgrounds, not just in the STEM disciplines, but in all of the different academic disciplines at Stony Brook,” said Gergen. “Having a robust community of support makes it easier for graduate programs to recruit, retain and promote the success of students from these backgrounds. It’s an opportunity for them to become part of something that’s pretty awesome.”
— Robert Emproto