The National Institutes of Health (NIH) awarded Stony Brook’s Center for Inclusive Education (CIE) with a $1.4 million grant to support students from under-represented minorities (URM) in completing degrees in the biomedical sciences.
The five-year project funded by the grant is titled Maximizing Excellence in Research and Graduate Education (MERGE) and falls under the center’s pre-existing Initiative for Maximizing Student Development.
Dr. J. Peter Gergen, the director of the undergraduate biology program at the university and a professor in the department of biochemistry and cell biology, is the principal investigator and director of the program. He said that the university will fund five undergraduate and five graduate students each year under MERGE, leading to a total of 50 students over the course of the five years of the grant.
The Initiative for Maximizing Student Development (IMSD) is a student development program usually found in research universities with the goal of increasing the participation of URM students in biomedical research. Only one IMSD grant from the NIH is allowed per institution, and there are over 40 such programs throughout the United States, according to NIH’s website.
According to Nina Maung-Gaona, the assistant dean for diversity in the Graduate School and director of the CIE, as well as the co-principal investigator of the project, one main focus is trying to help the low population of URM students completing degrees in the biomedical sciences and the lower number showing interest in even entering science majors.
“There are a lot of deeply rooted factors contributing to this, perhaps in the K-12 education, and while we can’t do anything about that, we can try to encourage freshmen who come in with natural interest in the sciences but are very turned off by the mathematics courses or other seemingly difficult gatekeeper courses,” Maung-Gaona said in a phone interview.
One component of MERGE is a bio-math learning center for undergraduates, with juniors and seniors as tutors. The learning center will target students taking entry-level biology and mathematics courses, two major components for all biomedical science majors that are especially important for students planning on going to medical school or pursuing a doctorate degree.
“Maybe you came to Stony Brook because you’re interested in biology and want to be a doctor, but there are lots of other things that you can do,” Gergen said. “We’ve run a workshop many times called ‘The Other Kind of Doctor’ to let people know that there’s this thing called a Ph.D. which you can actually make a good living from.”
MERGE has also seen the creation of a summer heads-up program to support graduate students by funding their arrival a few weeks prior to the start of the fall semester. The students will spend five to six hours daily working on problem sets, attending lectures and meeting with the professors they will have for their upcoming fall courses.
Gergen stressed the importance of the heads-up program not only as a means of preparation for the students but also as something to give them a running start and ready them for the rest of the journey to their graduate degree through teamwork on problem sets.
The CIE has worked mainly in the graduate program area in the past, with the only undergraduate program being an eight-week summer session for students from other universities to come learn about Stony Brook’s graduate program, but the new grant and MERGE will offer funded research opportunities for URM freshmen and other undergraduates.
With so many students entering into research labs at all levels of education, a third component of MERGE, the Entering Mentoring Workshop, will prove to be quite important.
There is currently no training in place for mentors who will be accepting undergraduate or graduate students into their research projects and, with more undergraduate URM students being placed in these labs, it is necessary for mentors to be sensitive to the limited academic experience of these students, according to Gergen.
“IMSD-MERGE has allowed us to expand from just graduate down into the undergraduate level in terms of the services we provide,” Maung-Gaona said. “We have worked to leverage funding and create a seamless pipeline of programs to allow these students to benefit throughout their college experience, from the undergraduate to the graduate students and the post-docs to those entering the STEM workforce.”
This “seamless pipeline” has been made possible by over $8.5 million in grants received by the CIE thus far, with this being the fifth highest visibility award in the past few years. According to university press releases, another $1.4 million NSF grant last year to both Stony Brook University and Brookhaven National Laboratory also contributed to programs for underrepresented minority students.