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UB program for underrepresented minority students in biomedical PhD programs wins coveted renewal

From left to right, Rajendram Rajnarayanan, students Anthony Jones and Kerri Pryce, and Margarita L. Dubocovich, in a lab in Farber Hall. Credit: Meredith Forrest Kulwicki.

By Grove Potter

Release Date: June 2, 2017

“We go and visit schools and speak passionately about research, so the students see it and want to be involved.”
Rajendram V. Rajnarayanan, assistant professor
Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology

BUFFALO, N.Y. — The University at Buffalo’s ongoing efforts to recruit underrepresented students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) to its PhD programs has received a major boost from the National Institutes of Health, which renewed a $2.3 million, 5-year grant to help fully fund scholarships.

The grant will pay for the first two years of graduate school in the biomedical and behavioral sciences for four students a year. Over the past five years, the program is credited with bringing 20 underrepresented students to UB. And more importantly, it is part of a pipeline of “catalysts” that is helping the university attract underrepresented students to prepare the next generation of scientists and professors.

“These students are highly recruited by other universities,” said Margarita Dubocovich, PhD, SUNY Distinguished Professor in the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences and senior associate dean for diversity and inclusion.

The grant is part of the Initiative for Maximizing Student Development (IMSD), a student development program for research-intensive institutions funded by NIH’s National Institute of General Medical Sciences. The prestigious grant was awarded to only 21 PhD training programs.

Numerous departments involved

Students admitted into UB's IMSD can enroll in any of the following UB programs or departments: biological sciences; biomedical engineering; chemistry; psychology; pharmacology and toxicology; pharmaceutical sciences; the PhD program in biomedical sciences; and the graduate division at Roswell Park Cancer Institute.

Dubocovich said the grant — combined with UB’s Institute for the Strategic Enhancement of Educational Diversity (iSEED) and its Collaborative Learning and Integrated Mentoring in the Biosciences (CLIMB) program — has helped UB recruit 37 underrepresented students in STEM and related fields to its graduate programs over the past five years. And the deans of seven schools at UB have pledged to fund one underrepresented student a year.

These PhD graduate students are a cohort that helped win the grant renewal, she said. Helping diversify the ranks of the graduate programs has ramifications across the university.

“When you recruit faculty, and they know we are actively recruiting underrepresented students, they are more apt to come here,” Dubocovich said. “They want to have a more diverse class.”

National recruitment

Renewal of the grant was a significant win for the efforts of Dubocovich and her co-leader in the recruitment efforts, Rajendram V. Rajnarayanan, PhD, assistant professor of pharmacology and toxicology.

“We must be doing something right,” said Rajnarayanan, who likens the IMSD grant to a biological catalyst that helps keep students moving toward successful graduation and leadership roles in their scientific communities.

Dubocovich and Rajnarayanan attend conferences and speak to college groups to help recruit students to the university. In addition, they have established programs to bring promising undergraduate students to campus in the summer for a research training program.

“We go and visit schools and speak passionately about research, so the students see it and want to be involved,” said Rajnarayanan. “That’s how it works.”

“We recruit nationally,” Dubocovich said. “We bring them here so they can learn about UB and see whether they want to come here for graduate school.”

“Owing to the IMSD program, the number of admissions offers made to students from diverse backgrounds has more than doubled,” she said. “The total number of underrepresented PhD students with thesis mentors in the Department of  Pharmacology and Toxicology increased from 18 percent (2 out of 11) in 2011 to 58 percent (11 out of 19) in fall 2016.

“Similarly, first year student enrollment in the PhD program in biomedical sciences has increased from 8 percent in 2008-2011 to 24 percent in 2012-2015. Together, these data highlight the broader impact of the IMSD program in student enrollment at UB.”

First two years are key

Rajnarayanan said the university has “built a pipeline” for the students, starting with the summer program and continuing through graduate school, that includes mentoring and research opportunities. Under the IMSD grant, PhD students have individual mentoring during the first two years of the program, and gather as a group regularly.

“Statistically, if a student makes it through the first two years, they stay for the entire program,” he said.

All students seeking an IMSD grant must first be accepted into a PhD program, and then the individual school that nominated them for the grant. Each year, up to 18 students are nominated and out of those, four students are accepted.

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