Grant expands opportunities for underrepresented students in biomedical sciences to pursue graduate study

NIH Postbaccalaureate Research Education Program grant supports successful Pathway to Graduate Studies

By Sandra Gray

UMass Medical School Communications

January 26, 2018
  (from left) PREP grant co-investigator Brian Lewis, PhD, Pathway to Graduate Studies postbaccalaureate student Valeria Rivera Flores and Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences student and pathway alumna Kellianne Alexander.
  From left, PREP grant co-investigator Brian Lewis, PhD, Pathway to Graduate Studies postbaccalaureate student Valeria Rivera Flores and Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences student and pathway alumna Kellianne Alexander

The Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences is expanding its Pathway to Graduate Studies program, aimed at bringing more students from underrepresented minorities into biomedical science careers, thanks to a new Postbaccalaureate Research Education Program (PREP) grant from the National Institutes of Health. The five-year, $1.4 million grant to UMass Medical School is one of 40 awarded to institutions nationwide with PREP funding.

“Our expanded program will provide eligible national and local scholars with mentorship, academic training tailored to their research goals, opportunities to hone technical and professional skills necessary for graduate school, and hands on research experience,” said Brian Lewis, PhD, associate professor of molecular, cell, & cancer biology and associate dean for diversity and prematriculation programs in the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences. “Our breadth of mentors, scientific disciplines and academic programs offers the flexibility to individualize each trainee’s experience while providing a strong foundation to increase the likelihood of future academic success.”

Dr. Lewis is co-investigator for the PREP grant along with Kate Lapane, PhD, professor of quantitative health sciences, associate dean for clinical and population health research, and director of the CPHR training program in the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences. In 2015, they led the creation of the Pathway to Graduate Studies to address the need for a diverse biomedical research workforce. To date, 70 percent of participants have been accepted into PhD programs, including 17 students who are continuing their studies at the GSBS. Supported entirely by UMMS since its inception, the program will continue to receive institutional funding along with the PREP grant.

“A key strength of our application was the robustly supported and successful program we already have in place,” said Lewis. “We’re very excited to have the ability to diversity our profession and attract qualified students to our program who we can admit with a high confidence that they will succeed.”

The postbaccalaureate training grant complements a $1.6 million Initiative for Maximizing Student Development grant (IMSD) from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences to bolster the success of underrepresented students already enrolled in graduate programs. Lewis and Dr. Lapane are also co-investigators for this program.

Second-year GSBS student Kellianne Alexander is both an alumna of the Pathway to Graduate Studies and a current recipient of IMSD funding. She is now completing her doctoral research in the lab of Michael Francis, PhD, associate professor of neurobiology.

“As an undergrad I knew I liked science; the program gave me tangible steps and a timeline to make it a career,” said Alexander, a UMass Boston graduate and lifelong Massachusetts resident of Native American descent. “The student and faculty mentors who helped me shape and solidify my plans are one of the best parts of the program.”

Pathway to Graduate Studies participant Iris Valeria Flores Rivera, who earned her bachelor’s degree in microbiology at the University of Puerto Rico, looks forward to following in Alexander’s footsteps by matriculating at the GSBS. Despite the challenges of adjusting to a new home and coping with worry about family in the wake of Hurricane Maria, she has thrived since arriving in July.

“You have to work hard, but the support is here and I believe this is a good place for me to prosper,” said Rivera Flores. She is currently rotating in the lab of Haley Melikian, PhD, professor of neurobiology, where she is studying dopamine transport in addiction.

Both women intend to serve as mentors for underrepresented students and advocates for diversity in their future careers.

In addition to nine basic science programs to choose from at the GSBS, PREP students can select study in the PhD in clinical and population health research program led by Lapane, another strength the NIH finds in the GSBS.

“Our belief is that the program will draw more students to the clinical and population health research track, resulting in more longitudinal mentors for its students,” said Lewis.

The PREP grant expands Pathway to Graduate Studies program slots from four to eight per year in the first two years, then to 10 students in years three through five.

Related story on UMassMedNow:
NIH Initiative for Maximizing Student Development funds UMMS program

For the Media
▴ Back To Top
Section Menu To Top