NIH funds NC State science diversity efforts

August 23, 2012

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An NC State program aiming to increase diversity in the biomedical and behavioral sciences is getting a big boost to provide support for even more under-represented students seeking to enter the Ph.D. workforce.

After investing $2.1 million in NC State’s Initiative for Maximizing Student Diversity (IMSD) program over the past four years, the National Institutes of Health recently agreed to invest another $3.6 million in the program over the next five years.

IMSD supports under-represented students with professional development opportunities, paid research positions in labs, faculty and graduate student mentors and travel money to attend academic conferences.

Attracting nearly $6 million from one of the nation’s foremost research funding agencies is nothing to sneeze at. But students who’ve benefitted from the program say it’s about more than money. The guidance, preparation and mentorships are what really set the program apart.

IMSD was such a productive four-year college experience. I had access to research, traveled to present my research at conferences and gained marketable presentation skills,” says Tojan Rahhal, a 2012 biomedical engineering graduate. Rahhal will continue her education as a Ph.D. candidate in biological and biomedical sciences at UNC-Chapel Hill this fall.

Rahhal adds that IMSD introduced her to graduate school and joint M.D./Ph.D. program options by exposing her to research. She also gained professional development with tricks and tips and advice on everything from how to dress for interviews to how to approach the Graduate Record Exam. “The graduate students advised us and were a great help,” she says.

Ultimately, the program is what attracted her to NC State over UNC-Chapel Hill as an undergraduate, she says.

Dr. Liara Gonzalez, a Ph.D. student in comparative biomedical sciences, is a large-animal surgeon who has been actively involved with the IMSD program. “I can focus on diversity issues in higher education and mentor other minorities while also feeling supported by my program directors. The seminars were insightful and helped me to better understand the diversity issues that I faced growing up, as well as those still present today,” she says.

During the first four years of the program, 10 graduate and 25 undergraduate minority students received program support. The new funding will support another 25 undergraduates and 18 graduate students.

To recruit students, the program collaborates with the Women in Science and Engineering program, the Honors Programs, the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs, First Year College and the Office of Admissions.

With its 87-percent undergraduate retention rate and an ingrained philosophy among graduate students to “pay it forward” by mentoring the undergrads, IMSD director Dr. Erin Banks says the program makes a difference, creating an important social support network for participants.

Dr. David Shafer, an assistant dean of the Graduate School and a co-principal investigator for the grant, says that the program is an imperative to developing the nation’s intellectual resources. “Having programs like this are essential if we want to remain competitive and continue making important advancements in science and technology,” he says.

Since the mid-1990s, the Graduate School has received more than $20 million in federal funding to support programs to promote diversity and inclusiveness in graduate education, Shafer adds.