Research Snapshot: Multisite collaboration shows that virtual research program provides benefits to underrepresented undergraduates


By Aran Sullivan 


Five medical schools in the U.S., including Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, collaborated with the American Heart Association to implement a summer program designed to support diversity in biomedical science. The program, Supporting Undergraduate Research Experiences, was initiated in 2019 but had to adapt its format due to the COVID-19 pandemic.  

Researchers Kendra Oliver, assistant professor of pharmacology and senior lecturer for the communication of science and technology, and Joey Barnett, professor and vice chair of the department of pharmacology, led the virtual transition and used program evaluation data to compare the pre- and post-pandemic programs. They presented their results in a paper published in the Journal of the American Heart Association.

Kendra Oliver
Kendra Oliver

“We outlined the pros and cons of in-person and virtual programming and make recommendations for moving forward in a post-pandemic world with hybrid work and learning systems,” Oliver said. The findings indicated that students still reported extensive benefits from the virtual format, including personal gains, research skills, scientific proficiency and improved attitudes and behaviors toward the biomedical sciences.  


The AHA SURE program’s primary goal was to provide undergraduate research experiences for underrepresented students in biomedical science,” Oliver said. “We found that the collaborative efforts of multiple institutions to develop a virtual training experience led to the same if not greater exposure for students to various biomedical science institutions.”

Joey V. Barnett
Joey Barnett

Due to the need to adapt to the challenges of the pandemic, the program ended up serving a larger purpose—providing insight into how to successfully implement virtual programs. 

“Our effort informs the development of future undergraduate research training programs, significantly maximizing a hybrid training modality,” Oliver said. 


In the future, Oliver would like to dive deeper into the specifics of these virtual programs and research the innovative approaches used to keep students engaged. She will focus on public communication of these approaches and the products generated by students. Through these programs, Oliver also aims to make recommendations for future programming practices. 


The AHA SURE program was funded by the American Heart Association. The American Heart Association also supported this specific study, alongside various National Institutes of Health Research Education Program institutional grants. 


The study “Innovations in Undergraduate Research Training Through Multisite Collaborative Programming: American Heart Association Summer Undergraduate Research Experience Syndicate” was published in the Journal of the American Heart Association on April 7.