$21M NIH Grant Will Help Detroit Colleges Improve STEM Diversity

True innovation doesn’t exist without diversity, experts say, so the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has awarded a consortium of Detroit colleges $21.2 million over five years to encourage more underrepresented students to pursue careers in biomedical research.

With the backing of the NIH funding, Wayne State University (WSU), University of Detroit Mercy (UDM), Marygrove College, and the Wayne County Community College District (WCCCD) will implement the Research Enhancement for Building Infrastructure Leading to Diversity (REBUILD) program. The purpose of the REBUILD program is to enhance the research-training environment, involve students in laboratory research, and get more minority and economically disadvantaged students in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education pipeline.

Studies show that minority, underrepresented students are less likely to complete biomedical research training, says Ambika Mathur, Wayne State University’s dean of Master’s and PhD programs. During the first year of the grant, the four partner institutions will contribute to a curricular redesign in order to emphasize peer mentorship, lab research, and dedicated faculty advising. REBUILD will recruit its first cohort of students and begin their training during the grant’s second year.

“We’re going to reach out to metro Detroit public schools—particularly Detroit Public Schools—and ask students to apply to the program,” Mathur says. “They can take classes at any of the four institutions, and it all counts the same. The idea is to get them to pursue graduate degrees and a career in biomedical research. We want to take the mystery out of it.”

The four Detroit colleges are collaborating to help with recruitment. Combined, the institutions enroll about 47,000 undergraduates; 50 percent of those students are minorities and/or economically disadvantaged.

The REBUILD program’s goals are to have 75 percent of its students graduate after four years with undergraduate degrees in biomedical research-related fields, and have 50 percent of those graduates go on to advanced degrees. Currently, Mathur says African American students, one of the minorities REBUILD is trying to recruit, have a 15 percent graduation rate in STEM fields.

“Nationally, the numbers are very low,” Mathur says. “Only 15 percent are going into STEM. Less than 5 percent complete their PhD. That’s completely unacceptable, and evidence shows finances are a big reason. Plus, the whole concept of doing research is foreign.”

Mathur says the REBUILD program is designed to show students how rewarding a career in biomedical research can be. The students who participate in REBUILD will start with an immersion program during the summer, where they will come together once a week so they bond with each other. During the fall, a curriculum common to all four institutions will be offered alongside career development training. Students will learn how to be a scientist, how to prepare for a post-secondary STEM degree, and more.

Mathur says another important aspect to REBUILD is that it will attempt to create an “accelerated pipeline” by allowing students to count credits from their fourth year of undergraduate studies toward their first year of graduate studies. After that, if the students are interested in pursuing a doctoral degree, they will be allowed to transfer 30 credits from their Master’s degree toward the 90 credits required for a PhD.

“They’ll be able to graduate in one-third the amount of time,” Mathur adds. “And they’ll be supported financially the whole time through scholarships, stipends, or a job in the lab.”

UDM will administer the grant; WCCCD and Marygrove will be the grant’s “pipeline partners” tasked with expanding the pool of participating students and implementing the grant’s support programs; and WSU will serve as the grant’s research partner, mentoring faculty from other institutions and providing research training.

Mathur says she feels very strongly about increasing the participation of underrepresented students. “It’s a great opportunity to collaborate between Detroit institutions,” she says. “If it works, it could be a huge model for the rest of the country. The fact that we were one of 10 consortiums nationally speaks to our ability to get things done.”

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