January 26, 2007

Assistants now ‘Master’s’ of the lab

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Krista Stanton, M.S.

Assistants now ‘Master’s’ of the lab

Laura Reinert, M.S.

Laura Reinert, M.S.

Brent Anderson, M.S.

Brent Anderson, M.S.

The first group of students to complete the Master of Laboratory Investigation (MLI) program celebrated their newly earned degrees with family and friends earlier this month. Seventeen students, all members of the research staff at Vanderbilt, were awarded Master of Science degrees in December.

“What was unusual about this celebration was the number of family members — moms and dads, aunts and uncles, young kids and bigger kids,” said Roger Chalkley, D.Phil., senior associate dean for Biomedical Research Education and Training. “We knew when we started this program that it was not just going to require the student's effort, but that the whole family was going to be involved. It was really rewarding and fun to celebrate with these students and their families.”

The MLI program was designed to offer research assistants at Vanderbilt the opportunity to pursue a master's degree while continuing to work full-time in Medical Center laboratories. The program aims to foster the personal growth and independent research skills of Vanderbilt's research assistants.

“Our hope is that this program will increase the caliber of the research through these individuals in the lab,” Chalkley said, “and that it will make research a more productive career for these individuals.”

Students in the first class agree that the program was challenging and valuable.

“I learned a ton, including didactic information, new laboratory techniques and how to think about research,” said Laura Reinert, M.S., a research assistant in the laboratory of Louise Rollins-Smith, Ph.D. “The program helped me grow and become more confident. I'm already putting information that I learned to use in the laboratory.”

Brent Anderson, M.S., a laboratory manager for Jonathan Haines, Ph.D., said that the program gave him an opportunity to learn “the science behind the protocols,” knowledge that has improved his research skills.

Ray Mernaugh, Ph.D., director of the MLI program, said this kind of knowledge is what it takes “to do truly innovative research.”

“I am a staunch advocate of knowing and understanding what you are doing when performing research at the bench,” Mernaugh said. “The MLI program is producing a workforce of trained scientists who not only know how to carry out a specific protocol or technique, but also when to use it and why it is used in the context of their research.”

The graduates said their improved knowledge and skills are already paying off in terms of promotions and respect.

“I have become a much more valuable part of the team, and I feel that my managers respect my opinion and input far more than before I started the program,” said Krista Stanton, M.S., a research assistant in the laboratory of John Phillips, M.D. “The research and technical experience I gained has been invaluable.”

The new graduates were enthusiastic about the program and recommended it to other research staff members, with a note of caution about the difficulty of juggling coursework, a full-time job, and for many, family commitments.

“It was one of the most challenging times of my life,” said Marcia Blair, M.S., a research assistant in the laboratory of Peter Hedera, M.D. Blair credited her husband with taking on a primary role in caring for their young daughter. “I did most of my studying and writing after 9 p.m. I was tired a lot!”

The MLI program grew from a 2001 faculty taskforce recommendation for improving, supporting, and extending the laboratory workforce. Ann Richmond, Ph.D., assistant dean for Biomedical Research Education and Training, redesigned an initial proposal for the program (that had failed to gain approval from the faculty senate) and guided it through the faculty approval process. Richmond served as the MLI program director during its initial year (2004-2005) and is now the program's assistant director.

Michelle Grundy, Ph.D., assistant director of Graduate Programs in Biomedical Sciences, and Ellen Carter, administrative officer in the Biomedical Research Education and Training Office, were instrumental in securing federal funds from the Department of Labor to establish the program's laboratory course. Program tuition is covered by scholarship funds from the Dean of the School of Medicine, $750 per year paid by the students, and $750 per year paid by the students' laboratories.

Lindsay Meyers, the program coordinator for the MLI, is responsible for meeting with potential applicants, administering academic details, advising students in terms of curriculum choices, and promoting the program to faculty and students. She has “helped make (the MLI program) the success that it currently is,” Richmond said.

The program admits five or six students each year. The application deadline for this fall's entering class is March 15. For more information, and to apply online, go to https://medschool.mc.vanderbilt.edu/mls/.