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Grant boosts student diversity in biomedical data science

Oct. 20, 2022, 9:22 AM


by Mia Garchitorena

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) National Library of Medicine (NLM) awarded Meharry Medical College, Fisk University and Vanderbilt University Medical Center a five-year R25 grant to engage and support diverse undergraduate and graduate students who participate in biomedical informatics and biomedical data science summer research programs.

The five-year, $679,000 award will be shared by Meharry, Fisk and VUMC and will fund the creation of the Biomedical Informatics Ecosystem to Support Talented Diverse Students in Data Science (BEST-DS2).

BEST-DS2 will engage Fisk and Meharry students in a summer research program led by faculty from The School of Natural Sciences and Mathematics at Fisk, Meharry’s School of Applied Computational Sciences and the Department of Biomedical Informatics at VUMC.

“It is wonderful to join Fisk and VUMC to pursue our shared goal of increasing diversity in biomedical data science and bioinformatics,” said Fortune Mhlanga, PhD, dean of Meharry School of Applied Computational Sciences and principal investigator (PI) for the grant. “BEST-DS2 will play an important role in preparing diverse students for future educational and career opportunities.”

Other PIs for the grant include Lei Qian, PhD, PI for Fisk and Kim Unertl, PhD, PI for VUMC. Todd Gary, PhD, assistant professor, biomedical data science, and director, external research development partnerships, is co-investigator for Meharry.

“The grant will allow us to further develop the relationship between Fisk, Meharry and VUMC in Biomedical Informatics, while supporting biomedical informatics and biomedical data science research experiences for talented Fisk undergraduate and Meharry graduate students,” said Unertl, associate professor and director of graduate studies in the Department of Biomedical Informatics at VUMC.

“Fisk, Meharry and VUMC have a long history of collaboration. This project will reinforce this coalition by training underrepresented students from Fisk and Meharry in bioinformatics and data sciences and ultimately increasing the diversity of researchers in these areas. I am looking forward to working with my colleagues at Meharry and VUMC to achieve these goals,” said Qian, associate professor and discipline coordinator of computer science at Fisk.

Fisk and Meharry are Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) with a high proportion of students from groups who are underrepresented in biomedical informatics and biomedical data science.

VUMC provides substantial expertise in successful summer research experiences through the Vanderbilt Biomedical Informatics Summer Program (VBISP).

VUMC will host three Fisk students and three Meharry students in the VBISP each summer, with two students working with mentors from Fisk, Meharry and VUMC. The BEST-DS2 team will also be doing virtual presentations about informatics to students at other HBCUs and initiating a two-week skills bootcamp each summer (led by Zhijun Yin, PhD, assistant professor of Biomedical Informatics at VUMC, as well as faculty from Fisk and Meharry). All students will receive a stipend as well as paid housing during the program, ensuring equitable compensation for undergraduate students and a higher stipend level for Meharry graduate students.

“I’m excited to kick off this collaboration with Fisk and Meharry. This grant fits in well with our existing VBISP activities, while building stronger connections between students and biomedical informatics researchers at our three institutions,” said Unertl. “This lays a foundation for future collaborations in biomedical informatics education between Fisk, Meharry and VUMC.”

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