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Science PREP a family affair for UMass Medical School’s Asli McCullers

Twin sisters participate in Postbaccalaureate Research Education Programs in different states

By Kylee Denesha

UMass Medical School Communications

septiembre 24, 2020

Asli McCullers, a student in the Postbaccalaureate Research Education Program (PREP) in the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, has rarely been apart from her identical twin sister, Zari, until this year. While Asli is participating virtually in the PREP program at UMass Medical School from her home in Maryland, Zari is on campus at Louisiana State, where she is enrolled in its PREP program.

“We stayed close throughout our lives, both emotionally and physically,” Asli McCullers said. “We went through elementary, middle, high school and college together. Now we’re both pursuing science through PREP programs at different graduate schools—the first time we’ve been separated!”

The McCullers sisters are recent graduates of Towson University in Baltimore, Maryland. Asli McCullers earned her bachelor’s degree in biology. Upon graduating in May, she was hoping to broaden her science skills and better prepare for graduate school.

“I came across UMass Medical School’s PREP program; there are dozens throughout the United States,” she said. “I was drawn to UMass Medical School’s specific Clinical and Population Health Research division for PREP students. After doing some soul searching, I realized I liked the applications of biology. That’s how I got into public health-related work. I’ve done extensive volunteer work in this regard and intend to focus my work on health disparities and equity.”

PREP is geared towards students seeking a career in biomedical research, offering the opportunity to enhance academic preparedness and hands-on experience. Participants must have a bachelor’s or master’s degree in the physical sciences, life sciences or public health.

“Our program participants also take graduate courses to build skills and enhance their applications to research-focused graduate degree programs,” said Kate Lapane, PhD, professor of population & quantitative health sciences and PREP program director, along with Brian Lewis, PhD, professor of molecular, cell & cancer biology and assistant vice provost of outreach and recruitment. “We are grateful that UMMS leadership has also provided substantial support to complement the NIH funding we received. Dr. Lewis and I are incredibly proud of our trainees. They give us hope that the next generation of scientists will solve today’s medical challenges.”

The program runs for 12 months, July through June, and this year, it is entirely virtual due to COVID-19. McCullers is staying in Maryland and taking her courses online.

“It’s been great, especially given the situation we’re living in right now,” McCullers said. “Of course, this is a really challenging time for everyone; however I’m already learning a lot on how to put my interests into action. The Zoom classes and meetings are different than what we may have anticipated, but it is worth it.”

The Clinical and Population Health Research pathway is based on foundations of epidemiology, research methods and biostatistics, consisting of small group discussions, papers, presentations and exercises. Students work closely with their research mentors to develop an independent project.

After PREP, McCullers aims to earn her master’s in public health and eventually pursue a PhD. Using her drive for social justice and community health, McCullers foresees a career that allows her to make a difference.

“It’s critical that we pay attention to what’s going on in our society,” she said. “I just think it’s so important to do what you can to make the world a better place.”

The PREP program at UMMS is funded by an NIH Postbaccalaureate Research Education Program (PREP) grant, with a goal to increase diversity of the biomedical sciences graduate student population. To be eligible, students must be U.S. citizens or permanent residents and must be from backgrounds underrepresented in the biomedical sciences as defined by the NIH.