October 15, 1999

Fellowships draw talented minority students into labs

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Dr. Barney Graham (left) with Academic Medicine Fellows Gary Schoeman and Tonya Hollinger.

Fellowships draw talented minority students into labs

A second Vanderbilt University Medical Center faculty member has been selected to serve on the board of the Fellowship Program in Academic Medicine for Minority Students.

Dr. Barney S. Graham, professor of Medicine and assistant professor of Microbiology and Immunology, joins Dr. Jacek Hawiger, Oswald T. Avery Professor and Chair of Microbiology and Immunology, on the 12-person board.

Hawiger has been a member of the board since the program's founding in 1984. The late Dr. David E. Rogers, former chair of the department of Medicine at Vanderbilt, launched the Fellowship Program while he was president of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The program is dedicated to increasing the number of minority persons who become medical school faculty members and biomedical researchers.

"Dr. Rogers conceived this program as a way to get talented and motivated minority medical students into the laboratories of highly recognized faculty mentors," Hawiger said. "A key part of his vision for the program was the continued interaction between student and mentor, to assist the student in obtaining first rate residency and then academic positions."

Each year, the program board selects up to 35 Academic Medicine Fellows to participate in biomedical research projects, usually during the summer after the second year of medical school. The Bristol-Myers Squibb Company took over the sponsorship of the program in 1993 from its original sponsor, The Commonwealth Fund. The program is administered by National Medical Fellowships, Inc.

Because Graham has had a longstanding interest in issues related to minority students and faculty members in academic medicine, his involvement in the Fellowship Program and selection for the board was natural.

"It's a terrific program," Graham said. "I would recommend more faculty members pair with students and try to get involved in it."

Graham has served as a mentor to four Academic Medicine Fellows. He recruits minority students to begin a research project during the summer after the first year of medical school, then he works with the student to write the fellowship application in the fall. Fellowship recipients return to the lab for a second summer of research.

"This approach gives the students two years of experience and lets them pursue a more in-depth project. I've been able to build funding for the first summer into my RO1 grants," Graham said.

The program emphasizes the mentor-student relationship, and Graham enjoys his side of the equation.

"Working with students always brings a fresh perspective. New minds applied to an old problem often see things a little bit more clearly," Graham said. "As a mentor, I end up learning as much or more than the students do."

Carleton Allen can attest that the students are learning a lot. The third-year Meharry Medical College student and 1999 Academic Medicine Fellow spent the last two summers in Graham's lab studying the actions of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) in cultured cells.

"This was the first time I'd done research, and it was really challenging," Allen said. "As a medical student, I'm used to answering questions. But in the lab, you can't answer questions until you decide what questions to ask. That's tough."

Both Allen and fourth-year Vanderbilt medical school student Tonya Hollinger, who also worked with Graham as a 1998 Academic Medicine Fellow, said the program had broadened their thinking.

"I've always wanted to practice clinical medicine," Hollinger said. "Now I want to do more. I see the value of research to making progress in medicine, and I want to be involved with that."

Each spring, the Bristol-Myers Squibb Company hosts a research symposium where the Academic Medicine Fellows present their findings. This symposium is often the highlight of the program.

"It was great meeting the other fellows and hearing about all the different research," Hollinger said. "Some of the projects were really amazing."

"The symposium sessions are consistently outstanding," Graham said. "It's the only meeting I go to every year where I hear research ideas from a number of disciplines — not just viral immunology. It revs me up for the rest of the year."

Besides Graham and Hawiger, other Vanderbilt mentors have included Dr. Terence S. Dermody, associate professor of Pediatrics and assistant professor of Microbiology and Immunology; Dr. Denis M. O'Day, George Weeks Hale Professor and Chair of Ophthalmology; and Dr. Peter F. Wright, professor of Pediatrics and associate professor of Microbiology and Immunology.

Eleven Vanderbilt medical students have received Academic Medicine Fellowships since the program's inception in 1984. Applications are accepted each Fall, and selections are announced the following April.

"This program is a remarkable example of how an idea conceived by one of the most concerned leaders in academic medicine — Dr. Rogers — can be transformed into a program with extraordinary results," Hawiger said. "The outcome of the program in terms of students getting into top-notch residency programs and embarking on academic careers is very significant."