February 16, 2007

Diversity grant to assist minority researchers

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Roger Chalkley, D.Phil.

Diversity grant to assist minority researchers

More than 100 applicants are competing for roughly 10 slots to receive the Initiative for Maximizing Student Diversity (IMSD) grant at Vanderbilt, a highly successful NIH initiative to attract underrepresented minorities into Ph.D. degree programs in the biomedical and behavioral research fields.

IMSD is a component of the broader Minority Biomedical Research Support (MBRS) program, created in response to a legislative mandate to increase underrepresented minority faculty, investigators and students in these fields by broadening opportunities.

Funding is set at $2.6 million over four years, according to IMSD program director Roger Chalkley, D. Phil., which should support about 10 students a year. This is Vanderbilt University School of Medicine's sixth time to receive IMSD grant support.

“These dollars will make a big difference in helping to enhance the diversity of our students,” said VUSM Dean Steven Gabbe, M.D. “Over the last several years we have seen our training grant support go up fivefold through the efforts of Roger and our program directors.”

Formerly known as the Initiative for Minority Student Development, the program was reviewed and changed at the federal level due to a large number of recipients going to medical school rather than pursuing their Ph.D.

“With 70 percent overall ending up in Ph.D. programs, we were better than most,” Chalkley said. “In fact, at similar IMSDs around the country, as many as 80 percent ended up in medical school, and that wasn't the goal the NIH was funding.”

IMSD associate director Linda Sealy, Ph.D., also noted that it is often very hard for students to communicate to family and friends exactly what it is they are doing and why they are seeking a Ph.D. as a research scientist instead of going to medical school to become a physician.

The federal program now more closely resembles a graduate program than a post-baccalaureate program.

“With them going into what amounts to a graduate program, they are making a commitment to the Ph.D. So in other words, for them to go the M.D. route they would have to quit the program and go in that direction,” Chalkley said.

“We are hoping that this way we will help further the NIH goals for career development.”

At Vanderbilt, it has been restructured into a “one year in two” graduate program, meaning students have an option to essentially do the first year of graduate school over a two-year period to help develop in the early stages of working in the laboratory with their mentor.

Students are allowed to audit the first-year course, which is rigorous and demanding, and retake it in the second year after they have been exposed to the material.

“We don't want them to just scrape by, we want them to really master this material,” Sealy said. “This program would also not have been successful without a fair number of faculty here who are willing to be very generous with their time in mentoring the students at the early stages of their career, so that they do go on to be successful in their research projects.”

Sealy and Chalkley also addressed barriers keeping students from entering the program by studying more than 1,000 Interdisciplinary Graduate Program applicants and learning that neither school GPA nor GRE scores correlated with the outcome of the individual as a scientist.

“The fact that GREs don't tell us a lot, and the fact that, historically, minority students tend to underperform on GREs, which tends to make it harder for them to get into graduate programs, is part of the underlying flawed structure,” Sealy said.

“Our program is now taking a holistic approach to these students in admitting them and we are looking very much at their prior experience particularly in laboratory-based studies, letters of recommendation that address their ability, and compatibility with the stresses and demands that can come with these careers.”

An underrepresented minority is anyone who is “underrepresented” in the science workforce relative to their representation in the population as a whole.

Eligible applicants can include the traditional definition of minorities, persons with a physical disability or who are economically disadvantaged, and also persons who are the first in their family to attend college.

Upon completion of the program, students can choose between 10 Ph.D. granting programs at Vanderbilt.