Vanderbilt receives NIH award to enhance student diversity in biomedical sciences

Science has proven that biodiversity is essential for healthy ecosystems and that diverse thinking yields better decision making in business. To follow the logic, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) recently launched the Maximizing Access to Research Careers (MARC) Awards program to build more diverse talent pools within undergraduate students. Vanderbilt is among a select number of universities with a significant number of mentors with NIH or other extramural research support to win this award.

According to a program announcement, NIH’s goal for the MARC program is to empower undergraduates with diverse backgrounds and with intentions to pursue research-focused biomedical Ph.D. or M.D./Ph.D. studies with the kind of technical, operational and professional skills that will help them build long-lasting, meaningful careers. The program is being designed by Vanderbilt to emphasize its unique environment, mission and strengths.

The announcement underscores the need for such a program; the population size of college-aged students from diverse backgrounds far overshadows how many in this group earn bachelor and Ph.D. diplomas in the life sciences. Of those in underrepresented groups who do earn advanced degrees in life sciences, their presence as faculty members at research institutions or medical schools is limited in favor of joining the biomedical research workforce. Diminishing diversity on campus limits the ability of researchers to think or discover broadly.

“MARC is a program that is enabling access and inclusion to students who typically have not had access to science or science-focused careers,” said Doug McMahon, co-director of the MARC program and Stevenson Professor of Biological Sciences. “This program is important not only from the perspective of a just and equitable society but because it will enable researchers to do the best possible science. These principles go hand in hand.”

“As the program moves forward we will also be introducing a pre-MARC program to engage freshmen and sophomores,” said Katherine Friedman, co-director of the MARC program and vice-chair of the biological sciences department. “Both programs give students a chance to see and feel what it means to do research and have a career in the sciences. We aim to create an atmosphere in which students can visualize themselves in research careers, something that they might not have otherwise been exposed to.”

Anna Bright, Lucy Britto, Hannah Craft, Cassidy Johnson, Sim Plotkin and Bethanie Stauffer are the six rising juniors selected as MARC scholars in the inaugural 2020 cohort. Each student is heading towards a Ph.D. or M.D./Ph.D. and is fundamentally interested in conducting research as a career.

Lucy Britto, a Brazilian-American recently diagnosed with epilepsy, is a rising junior majoring in biomedical engineering. Her experiences living with family in Brazil shaped her commitment to ending the effects of poverty on human health, and her diagnosis gave her a renewed appreciation for the doctors and scientists developing cures for debilitating diseases. “Innovation is seeded in diversity,” said Britto. “Anything that makes us different contributes to society’s growth and improves science.” Instead of trying to get a summer job amid the pandemic, Britto’s status as a MARC scholar has enabled her to spend the season taking a biology course, contributing to journal clubs, attending cancer biology symposiums, learning from grad student mentor Kevin Corn and contributing to breast cancer research in the tumor and tissue microenvironment lab of Marjan Rafat, assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering.

Bethanie Stauffer, a rising junior majoring in chemistry is keeping an open mind to what she’s looking for in a future research career. So far, she has found MARC to be a positive and interesting experience that has given her new opportunities to consider after she finishes her undergraduate education. “For a lot of my life I knew the endpoint I wanted to reach, just not the path to get there,” said Stauffer. “My serious consideration of graduate school came with applying to the MARC program and the next few years of my life already look completely different just from enrolling in the program.” This summer Stauffer is taking a course in biostatistics that is rigorously preparing her for data analysis and other lab work. In the fall Bethanie will join the lab of Renã Robinson, associate professor of chemistry.  “I expected to know at least one of the other scholars because we are all in the same class and STEM majors of some kind, but I did not. Being a MARC scholar has been great as it has given me a new network of students and professors involved with the program,” said Stauffer.

In years ahead, McMahon and Friedman expect to have 12 students in the program at any given time. Applications for the 2021 MARC cohort will open as early as late fall and the program will begin in May 2021.

The grant proposal was supported by Research Development and Support (RDS) which offers proposal development assistance for strategic, federally-funded opportunities. RDS is in the Office of the Vice Provost for Research.