PVM Diversity Initiative Helps “PREP” Undergrads for Research Careers

PREP participant Tecarla Shenea Ikard collaborates with Department of Basic Medical Sciences graduate student Joselyn Cruz-Cruz (left) while examining skeletal preparations of mouse embryos under the supervision of Dr. Susan Mendrysa, PREP program director and associate professor of basic medical sciences.

PREP participant Tecarla Shenea Ikard collaborates with Department of Basic Medical Sciences graduate student Joselyn Cruz-Cruz (left) while examining skeletal preparations of mouse embryos under the supervision of Dr. Susan Mendrysa, PREP program director and associate professor of basic medical sciences.

What began as a proposal to Purdue University's Diversity Leadership Team to broaden diversity in biomedical science graduate programs now is up-and-running as a pilot program in the College of Veterinary Medicine. Initially submitted in November 2015 by a Purdue Veterinary Medicine team led by Associate Professor of Basic Medical Sciences Susan Mendrysa and Assistant Professor of Basic Medical Sciences Marxa Figueiredo, the proposal became one of nine initiatives selected to receive funding through Purdue University's Diversity Transformation Award (DTA) program. Called the "Post-Baccalaureate Research Education Program for Biomedical Sciences" (PREP), the program officially began in June, with the goal of providing individuals who have already earned their undergraduate degree the opportunity to experience and participate in activities similar to those of a typical graduate student.

With the DTA funding, the pilot PREP program was able to recruit five recent college graduates from groups historically underrepresented in biomedical sciences to participate in a year-long research experience and to prepare for applying to PhD or MD-PhD programs in the biomedical sciences.  The participants are Janiel Ahkin Chin-Tai from Florida International University, Tecarla Ikard from Fayetteville State University, Danté Johnson from Louisiana State University, Cosette Rivera-Cruz from the University of Puerto Rico - Cayey, and Taylor Smith from Tuskegee University.  They now are spending the year in Purdue Veterinary Medicine's Department of Basic Medical Sciences working with faculty members on projects in their research labs.

The full-year of research experience is the largest and most important component of the PREP program, according to Dr. Mendrysa. All of the PREP participants have had previous research experience on short-term projects. "The challenges with those kinds of short-term projects, or projects that you're trying to fit into all of your other school requirements during the academic year, is that you don't really get a sense of what it's like to develop a project from the beginning and work through the ups and downs to move it forward," said Dr. Mendrysa. "That's what's nice about this program—it allows students a full year of research in a single research lab. They're able to start out with a project and develop the project over the course of a year as their primary focus of the PREP program."

Dr. Mendrysa said PREP also contains components designed to prepare the participants for graduate programs in the field of biomedical sciences. One of those components involves learning about scientific communication. "We're working on writing scientific abstracts, creating poster presentations and later on we'll work on oral presentations. Many of those same skills that are important for communicating science effectively will be important for them as they develop their graduate applications," said Dr. Mendrysa. The participants got their first chance to display their work at a campus poster session in July.

Dr. Mendrysa also explained that PREP participants get the opportunity to take one upper level undergraduate or a graduate level course in the fall and spring semesters. "While we want the emphasis to be on research, many of these students may not have had many opportunities to take upper-level courses and we want them to be able to challenge themselves in a more rigorous course. This will be a component of grad school—you're now expected to do research, as well as take several upper-level courses simultaneously," said Dr. Mendrysa. "This is an opportunity for them to test themselves in a more challenging course, or if they have a gap in their undergraduate coursework, they can fill that now."

Within the first couple of months, Dr. Mendrysa said all of the participants felt at home in their research labs.  Ensuring a supportive educational climate is another focus of the program.  Dr. Mendrysa said that PVM's Director of the Office for Diversity and Inclusion Kauline Cipriani is implementing a mentor training program to help mentors become more aware of issues that students from different backgrounds face. 

Janiel Ahkin Chin-Tai works in the research laboratory of Dr. Russell Main, assistant professor of basic medical sciences, who advises her as she sorts mouse bone samples for micro-CT analysis.

Janiel Ahkin Chin-Tai works in the research laboratory of Dr. Russell Main, assistant professor of basic medical sciences, who advises her as she sorts mouse bone samples for micro-CT analysis.

PREP participants join program leaders for their weekly meeting: (L-R) Danté Johnson, Tecarla Shenea Ikard, Janiel Ahkin Chin-Tai, Cosette M. Rivera-Cruz, Taylor M. Smith, Dr. Marxa Figueiredo and Dr. Susan Mendrysa.

PREP participants join program leaders for their weekly meeting: (L-R) Danté Johnson, Tecarla Shenea Ikard, Janiel Ahkin Chin-Tai, Cosette M. Rivera-Cruz, Taylor M. Smith, Dr. Marxa Figueiredo and Dr. Susan Mendrysa.

Noting that the DTA funding for the one year pilot program is being supplemented by support from the College of Veterinary Medicine, Dr. Mendrysa said that the team is using what they've learned so far to begin developing a proposal to secure funding for a five-year program. The team hopes to receive funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), since the PREP program is modeled after the structure of another program that NIH supports. Dr. Mendrysa hopes to see the program create a steady supply of exceptional PhD students in the field, achieve a critical mass of underrepresented minorities in graduate/postdoctoral positions, enhance retention through culturally-relevant mentorship and transform Purdue's climate for diversity to one that is better aligned with Purdue's cultural values.

Dr. Figueiredo said that it's a really exciting opportunity for the College to host this program. "It's a chance for a few students to experience graduate school before they take the leap—they can test the waters. They're also going to be much stronger after the program, since we're committed to their success," said Dr. Figueiredo. "I think that they're going to be very successful and they're also going to give the Purdue University College of Veterinary Medicine good and positive exposure. It's an opportunity to make programs more diverse on campus."

The DTA awards were created by the Purdue University Office of the Provost to enhance recruitment, enrollment and retention of underrepresented minority (URM) students, faculty and staff, and to study factors affecting inclusiveness and success of URM students and faculty. Sixty-six faculty teams responded to the call for proposals and $1 million in funding is supporting the nine DTA initiatives selected.


This story is part of the 2016 Annual PVM Report.

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