New grant helps foster diversity at UNC School of Medicine

The IMSD program attracts underrepresented students in the biomedical sciences

New grant helps foster diversity at UNC School of Medicine click to enlarge Ashalla Freeman, PhD

The National Institutes of Health awarded UNC School of Medicine a third round of funding for its IMSD Program – The Initiative for Maximizing Student Diversity.

The new grant – for $2.9 million over five years – gives UNC the means to recruit more students from traditionally underrepresented populations and support their training as graduate students through professional development.

“The NIH definition of ‘underrepresented’ includes students from groups that have been historically absent in biomedical sciences,” said Ashalla Freeman, PhD, Director of Diversity Affairs for the School of Medicine’s Office of Graduate Education. These groups include African Americans, Native Americans, Hispanic Americans, Native Hawaiians, Pacific Islanders, students with disabilities, and students from low socio-economic backgrounds.

“Students from these groups have historically had less access and exposure to graduate education and research, especially in biomedical sciences,” she said. “When I talk to undergraduate students around the country who are skilled in the sciences, they talk about becoming a dentist or doctor or a vet or a physician’s assistant. Few know about biomedical research.”

Freeman and UNC faculty attend large conferences where students showcase their undergraduate research, such as through poster symposia. The goal is to recruit the best applicants from a nationwide pool. If a student chooses UNC and is accepted, the IMSD program covers about 75 percent of the cost to attend UNC for the first year, and the UNC School of Medicine pays the rest during that first year of graduate school. In later years, after students join their dissertation labs, faculty members pays student stipends, tuition, and other costs through grant dollars or other sources.

Prior to IMSD, few underrepresented students sought graduate degrees in biomedical sciences each year at UNC. In 2005, just two such students enrolled biomedical PhD programs. In the first year of IMSD (2006), ten underrepresented students enrolled at UNC. In 2007, another ten students enrolled.

Since 2008, the increase has spiked, due in part to the creation of BBSP – the Biological and Biomedical Sciences Program – an umbrella program that oversees the recruitment and enrollment of first-year graduate students at the school of medicine.

“Prior to BBSP, all graduate student admissions were splintered among the departments,” Freeman said. “There was no centralized recruitment of students.”

In conjunction with the IMSD program, BBSP welcomed more underrepresented students than ever before.

Prior to IMSD, the average annual percentage of underrepresented students entering the biomedical sciences graduate programs had been 6 percent. Since IMSD, it’s been in the 14 -22 percent range.

According to U.S. census data, about 31 percent of the U.S. population is African American, Hispanic American, and Native American.

“This program is about broadening and diversifying the workforce and ensuring there’s equal opportunity and representation,” Freeman said. “But also, science is most successful when everyone is at the table bringing different ideas and perspectives. If all scientists come from the same type of background, then generally their perspectives are going to be quite similar. And there’s this vast amount of genius that we’re not exposed to or don’t appreciate because everyone doesn’t have access to this type of education and training.

For more information on IMSD, including services for students, check out the website.

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