March 24, 2000

New program aims to boost diversity of research students

Featured Image

Students who visited VUMC recently as part of the new Minority Bridges Program included (from left) Rolando Gonzalez, Louis Cortes, Juliane del Toro Bayron and Mildred Ortiz Hernandez.

New program aims to boost diversity of research students

The first group of students to participate in Vanderbilt's new National Institutes of Health-funded "Minority Bridges Program" visited recently to become familiar with the university and to explore summer research opportunities.

The program provides a path from the Master's degree to the Ph.D., with the goal of increasing the number of underrepresented minorities entering careers in biomedical research.

The new Bridges program joins Vanderbilt University and five partner institutions: Barry University (Miami Shores, Florida), Clark Atlanta University (Atlanta, Georgia), Florida A & M University (Tallahassee, Florida), Tuskegee University (Tuskegee, Alabama), and the University of Puerto Rico (Mayaguez, Puerto Rico). The partner universities do not offer Ph.D. programs in the biomedical sciences.

Minority students pursuing Master's degrees at these partner institutions are eligible for the Bridges program, which offers them summer research opportunities at Vanderbilt, a summer course called "Preparing for the Ph.D.," the possibility of completing Master's thesis research at Vanderbilt, and support of their application to Vanderbilt's Interdisciplinary Graduate Program or to Ph.D. programs at other universities.

Vanderbilt's Bridges program blossomed from the earlier informal recruiting efforts of Louis J. DeFelice, Ph.D., professor of Pharmacology and director of the Bridges program.

"I have been interested in minority recruiting for some time, so I visited minority institutions where I had contacts and encouraged students to apply to Vanderbilt," DeFelice said. "There are four Ph.D. students here now as a direct result of those informal connections, and at least twice that number who were influenced to go to graduate school because of those recruiting trips. Now, with the establishment of a formal program, we have the funds to really make a difference."

Cathleen Williams, from the Office of Minority Affairs, is the Bridges Program administrator.

"Cathleen is invaluable," DeFelice said, "things have really turned around since she joined us."

The new Bridges program is unique in its shared governance by Bridges coordinators at each partner institution and the Vanderbilt Bridges committee, which is composed of DeFelice, Roger Chalkley, D.Phil., senior associate dean for Biomedical Research Education and Training, Richard L. Hoover, Ph.D., professor of Pathology, Dr. Michael Rodriguez, associate clinical professor of Medicine and co-director with DeFelice of the School of Medicine's Office of Minority Affairs, and James V. Staros, Ph.D., professor and chair of Molecular Biology.

A subcommittee of the oversight group, with two representatives from Vanderbilt and one from each partner institution, selects students for the entire program. This first year, the committee selected 14 students, and 12 accepted the invitation to participate.

"We were delighted that almost everyone we asked decided to come," DeFelice said.

The students were enthusiastic about their visit to Vanderbilt and about the Bridges program.

"This program is a great opportunity for me; without it I don't know that I would be able to go on for a Ph.D.," said Darsy Ruiz, a high school biology teacher who is pursuing her Master's degree in Biological Sciences at Barry University.

The Bridges program offers Tia Carter, a Master's student in Electrical Engineering at Tuskegee University, the chance to change directions from engineering to biomedical science.

"I'm really interested in neuroscience, where electrical signaling is so important," Carter said. "By allowing me to explore biomedical research during the summer, this program will prepare me to switch fields."

The program plans to invite about 15 students each year to perform summer research projects at Vanderbilt. DeFelice anticipates that five will qualify for and enroll in Vanderbilt's IGP. But the members of the oversight committee agree that matriculation at Vanderbilt is just one measure of the success of the program.

"The program will be equally successful if you enter the Ph.D. program at another top institution," Chalkley told the students during their visit. "We're not trying to shoehorn you into a rigid program–we are flexible and will devise the right program for each of you as individuals."

Soloman Yilma, who will receive his Master's degree in Biology from Tuskegee University this spring, felt that improving academic competitiveness of minority students was a major function of the Bridges program.

"I think the top research universities are not so favorable to students who complete all of their work at small institutions," Yilma said. "This program gives us a way to 'advertise' ourselves, by having completed projects at a more research-intensive and competitive university."

Another goal of the Bridges program is to enhance the existing Master's programs at the partner universities by engaging in an enrichment exchange of faculty between Vanderbilt and the partner institutions.

The new grant provides funding for two years; after the first year, Vanderbilt will apply for a five-year grant.

"This is a 'starter' grant to see how we do. We have created a solid program, and I think we'll be in a very strong position," DeFelice said. "The Bridges program has been around at the NIH for awhile, but it hasn't really found a good model. We intend for our program to be that model."

The Vanderbilt Minority Bridges Program is only one of multiple efforts aimed at increasing the numbers of underrepresented minority students enrolled in the IGP. Ongoing efforts focus on recruiting students from our neighbor institutions, Tennessee State University and Fisk University, and the development of joint training grants continues to strengthen ties with Meharry Medical College.