NIH Awards $3.6M to Expand WSU Program for Minority Science Students

A Wayne State University program to help nurture budding scientists has been so successful, the National Institutes of Health has given it an additional $3.6 million in funding, which will enable it to grow and run at least another five years.

The Initiative for Maximizing Student Development (IMSD) is designed to support underrepresented students and help keep them engaged in the college experience. The IMSD began in 1978 as the Minority Biomedical Research Support program led by Joseph Dunbar, associate vice president for research at Wayne State. Dunbar is still deeply involved in the IMSD program and said the goals are to facilitate the “entry, persistence, and success” of minority students majoring in science, ultimately guiding them to pursue careers in academics and scientific research.

Dunbar said when the grant was renewed in 2011, WSU instituted yearly evaluations to measure the progress of both the students and the program. Dunbar has used that feedback to refine the program’s offerings. Over the last five years, the data shows that students in the IMSD program have a grade-point average that is between .7 to 1.0 higher than students who don’t participate. IMSD student graduation rates are at 87 percent, compared to 21 percent for the control group of underrepresented minority, non-IMSD students at WSU with comparable high school GPAs and standardized test scores. In addition, 64 percent of the IMSD students have gone on to pursue post-graduate degrees, compared to just 11 percent of the non-IMSD group.

“We introduce them to university life—how to navigate it, what to expect, financial literacy, where services are, et cetera,” Dunbar explained. “The most important thing is to give students a sense of community and support.”

Dunbar also likes to focus on critical thinking, teaching the students how to solve problems on their own and when to reach out for help. Minority students, he said, might feel apprehensive about asking for assistance. To help break down the barriers to communication, IMSD also pairs each student with a research mentor. The benefits, he said, go beyond academic and career advice.

“The student can start to see themselves as a person in science,” Dunbar said. “In many cases, the lab serves as a second home.”

Adjusting to university life can be tough for any student out on their own for the first time, Dunbar said, but it’s particularly challenging for minority students, kids from disadvantaged backgrounds, or those who are the first in their family to attend college.

“You have a deep feeling that you’re ‘the other,’ ” Dunbar said of these kinds of students.

Kids get overwhelmed and they begin to withdraw. If their grades suffer, he said, the students can become further mired in discouragement. In the worst-case scenario, this leads to students dropping out or abandoning scientific study altogether. “Trust is a very important thing; we want them to feel like they can come to us for support—no harm, no foul,” he said. “It’s very important that the students don’t feel judged.”

Dunbar spends some of his time recruiting students for the IMSD program. He visits local high schools and talks to them about science careers and the program sends out letters every year to incoming freshmen that meet the program’s criteria. University officials go through underrepresented and disadvantaged students’ applications to find out who is already excelling in science classes, and they make the pitch to those students to join the program. Most want to participate because they’re hungry for the kind of support IMSD offers, he said.

“Feeling a sense of community and the responsibility of working in a research group is what keeps kids in school,” Dunbar said. “Once they’re part of a team, they don’t want to let the team down.”

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