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PREP Aims to Increase Diversity in the Biosciences

January 23, 2015

The Graduate School of Arts and Sciences has launched an initiative to prepare college graduates from underrepresented minorities* for PhD programs in the biomedical sciences. PREP (Post-baccalaureate Research Education Program) at Yale is funded for four years with a grant of nearly $1.3 million from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Nationally, thirty-one universities and institutions have NIH-funded PREP initiatives. PREP’s overall goal is to increase diversity in the US biomedical workforce, and its local goal is to increase diversity at the Graduate School.

Underrepresented minority students have constituted roughly ten percent of enrollment in Yale’s Biological and Biomedical Sciences PhD programs for the past few years. They have done very well. More than ninety-five percent complete their degrees and gain employment afterwards — the same percentage as non-diversity students.  

That’s a great track record, says Assistant Dean Carl Hashimoto, “But we were concerned that the number of diversity students and applicants has stayed roughly the same over several years. We want to increase the pool overall.” Hashimoto and Michelle Nearon, Assistant Dean and Director of ODEO, co-direct Yale PREP.

PREP is absolutely critical for increasing diversity in the sciences, and we are so lucky to have this program here at Yale. It enriches our environment,” says Joann B. Sweasy, Professor of Therapeutic Radiology and Genetics at the Medical School. One of the PREP students, Korie Bush, is doing research in her lab this year. 

Participants in PREP attend for one year, from June 1 through May 31. They receive a stipend for living expenses and financial support to cover tuition for two Graduate School courses, as well as a GRE preparation course and travel-related expenses to attend a national conference. They stay in campus housing and get a taste of life as a graduate student. They participate in career workshops, a research literature seminar, and a journal club focused on health-disparities. The majority of their time is devoted to conducting independent research, supervised by a faculty member and under the direct guidance of a postdoctoral fellow or advanced graduate student. Research experience is “the most important criterion for gaining admission to highly regarded PhD programs,” says Hashimoto.

We are looking for strong, diverse prospective graduate students whose home institutions have few resources or opportunities to conduct research, and also for students who may not have realized their interest in scientific research until the latter part of their undergraduate years — thereby precluding them from taking advantage of research opportunities,” Nearon explains.

PREP at Yale is designed to ensure that its alumni will be successful once they are enrolled as graduate students. Hashimoto says, “Each participant is embedded in the first year program that most closely matches his or her interests, so they become comfortable with the expectations, rhythms, and challenges of graduate school life.”

This year, Yale received funding to support five PREP students. They are Korie Bush, who earned his undergraduate degree from Cornell, Shannon Hughley (Spelman), Wilhemina Koomson (Princeton), Andrew Lopez (University of California – Irvine), and Ryan Reyes (University of Arkansas – Monticello).

Korie was born and brought up on Long Island, NY. His interest in science began at Uniondale High School, which has an ambitious science research program. Under the tutelage of a dedicated teacher, he took part in competitions around the country. These experiences deepened his interest in the sciences and ultimately brought him to Cornell University. 

After graduating with a BS in biological sciences, he joined PREP, which is “sort of like a test run of graduate school,” he says. His current project in the lab of Joann Sweasy revolves around mutations within DNA polymerases (enzymes that synthesize long chains of nucleic acids) and how they affect the structure and function of the polymerases. Understanding these mutations may yield useful insights into diseases such as lupus and cancer. Korie plans to pursue a PhD in molecular biology.

Atlanta native Shannon is an alumna of Spelman College, where she earned a BA in psychology with a concentration in mental health. As an undergraduate, she worked with children suffering from mental illness, personality disorders, and intellectual disabilities, which helped fuel her interest in the etiology of psychiatric disorders.

Shannon chose to participate in PREP to gain a greater understanding of the neurobiology of psychiatric disorders. Her research, under the direction of Dr. Nii A. Addy, focuses on the impact of chemical manipulations in specific brain regions of rats on cue-induced sucrose-seeking behaviors after periods of withdrawal.

After her year in PREP, Shannon plans to pursue a PhD in clinical psychology with a concentration in neuropsychology and hopes to help develop innovative treatments and therapies for psychiatric disorders. She also wants to help eliminate the stigma associated with mental illness and reduce the cultural bias against seeking help for psychological and psychiatric disorders in the black community.

During her time in PREP thus far, Shannon has found the encouragement from current Yale graduate students and the support of the Addy Lab, the Interdepartmental Neuroscience Program, and PREP to be especially helpful.

Wilhemina was born in Mandeville, Jamaica, and lived in Trinidad and Tobago before coming to the United States. Her family is originally from Ghana, West Africa, “a place I consider to be my second home,” she says. She grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, and went to an inner-city public school that did not offer her the kind of education she craved.

“I often sought out challenging opportunities at nearby colleges and research institutions that simply were not present at my school,” she says. Wilhemina’s determination paid off. She was admitted to Princeton, where she majored in molecular biology. At Yale, she works in Sreeganga Chandra’s neuroscience lab on a project defining the role of protein palmitoylation (the attachment of fatty acids to amino acids) in neurons. Wilhemina’s current interests focus on neuromuscular, neurodegenerative, and autism spectrum disorders.

Working in this field truly excites me and pushes me to think of experiments that are outside of the box,” she says. “I love the opportunity that PREP gives me to do independent research over an extended period of time, and I love the opportunity to participate in graduate classes at Yale, where I learn as much from the students as I do from the professors.”

Andrew grew up in Los Angeles and studied biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of California – Irvine.

His fascination with biology prompted him to enroll in AP biology, “determined to grasp any opportunity that would facilitate my moving into research. I pushed myself to excel through public school with the goal of being the first in my family to attend college and become a scientist.” His parents, who emigrated from Mexico, did not finish high school.

As an undergraduate, he established and led the Biological Sciences Student Council, which “aimed to create a better learning environment by providing students with opportunities to interact with other students as well as faculty.” But, he adds, “It wasn’t until I came across the Minority Sciences Program that I encountered the support and mentoring I had been looking for throughout my life. This is where I believe my career as a scientist really began.”  

Because of this program, he was able to present his work at two conferences and a symposium, do research, attend a summer science program, hear guest lectures, join weekly journal clubs, and visit graduate schools – including Yale, Harvard, MIT, and UCLA.

At Yale, he works in the lab of Ronald R. Breaker, the Henry Ford II Professor of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology, on riboswitches (segments of messenger RNA molecules that bind to other molecules and change the production of proteins encoded in the RNA). “My ongoing research focuses on investigating the genome of prokaryotic organisms to find novel riboswitches within bacteria such as [anthrax-causing] Bacillus anthracis… to look for innovative targets for antibiotics. I am extremely grateful to my lab for the immense support as well as amazing mentorship and opportunity it has provided me with,” he says. 

Ryan grew up in the small East Texas town of New Waverly (pop. 1,000) and went to college “primarily to compete in intercollegiate sports,” he says. Following multiple sports-related surgeries, he became interested in scientific research and medicine and decided to pursue both MD and PhD degrees. Inspired and encouraged by “outstanding faculty mentors,” he realized that he needed experience in biomedical research that was not available at the rural university he attended. He applied to PREP and chose Yale because of its expertise in his primary fields of interest: oncology and immunology. Ryan earned his BS in chemistry and biology in May, and in June joined Katerina Politi’s lab in the Yale Cancer Center.

My project aims to combat the currently inevitable outcome of acquired resistance for non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) patients treated with targeted therapies,” Ryan says. Thanks to PREP, he has acquired both the “technical skills and confidence to pursue my scientific questions” and been accepted into the MD/PhD program at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio. He will matriculate in June and begin training as a physician-scientist.

* Underrepresented minorities include African American, Native American, Hispanic, native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders, as well as socioeconomically disadvantaged and disabled individuals.