MU research program receives $1.1 million grant for minority students

Thursday, October 31, 2013 | 8:07 p.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — When Angela Lovett was an undergraduate, she found that she was one of the few minority students studying the sciences.

"It was a little discouraging as I was going forward (in the program)," Lovett said.

After earning a bachelor's degree in biological sciences, Lovett said she wanted to get more experience with scientific research before going to graduate school. She said she didn't think she was ready yet.

So when her advisor suggested she apply to MU's Post-baccalaureate Research Education Program, Lovett took advantage of the opportunity. Now in her second year of the program, Lovett is one of many students who will benefit from a renewed $1.1 million training grant from the National Institutes of Health.

The grant will pay for up to 28 post-baccalaureate minority students in the next four years to participate in the PREP program through research assistantships alongside MU faculty members. It will also cover tuition costs and professional development training designed to enhance students' competitiveness.

"We want students to not only get in, but to succeed," said Chris Hardin, co-director of the grant and chairman of the Department of Nutrition and Exercise Physiology.

Most students participate in the program for one year but a few stay with the program an additional year, Hardin said. He said students from campuses with fewer opportunities for undergraduate research may need an extra year to achieve their fullest potential.

Lovett said PREP is there for students who need an extra push to get to the next level.

"Having someone there to guide you is great," Lovett said. "Having a one-on-one experience with an advisor that you may not have gotten before is helpful."

Participating scholars are expected to take graduate courses, engage with graduate students, participate in weekly journal clubs and lab meetings and attend scientific conferences and seminars.

Lovett said the program allowed her to explore all areas of science and pick one best suited to her interests — she came in to the program considering a career in cardiovascular science as well as microbiology.

"The program helped me decide where I wanted to go," Lovett said.

Another expectation of the program is for students to be involved in all phases of the faculty-mentored research project. Students are able to explore different labs and pick the one they are most comfortable with before embarking on their project.

"Labs are like families," Hardin said. "Each one is a little different in how it operates. The family that's comfortable to me may not be comfortable for you."

The students are encouraged to take ownership of the project and attend national conferences to explain and defend their work to other researchers, Hardin said.

He reflected on his first conference and acknowledged the value of introducing his work to other people, including those who influenced his work and whose research he read.

Students participating in the program also present their work to other scholars in weekly discussions.

"It's a give and take," Hardin said. "(The program) gives students confidence."

Hardin said he's had a longstanding interest in increasing diversity among students in the biomedical sciences.

He's passionate about "having those in the field be more like the general population," and said he sees PREP as a clear cut way to make this happen.

Twenty two of the 28 scholars who have completed the program at MU since it started in 2003 have been accepted into competitive doctoral programs in a biomedical field, one into medical school and two into masters programs, according to a news release.

"It's a good feeling knowing that there's going to be more people like me doing things I love," Lovett said.

Lovett said she looks forward to taking on a mentor role for other minority students as she finishes up the program and begins her doctoral study in microbiology.

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.

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