Cultivating a career in biomedical research is basically a series of experiential steps: Most times, but not always, it starts with a knack and interest in STEM subjects -- science, technology, engineering and math -- in high school, a relevant major in college, eventually earning a PhD, and securing a postdoctoral position. Along the way, getting experience in the lab is a must to eventually run one of your own. At many academic medical centers, there are programs that focus on helping students each step of the way. At Penn, high school students have the six-week internship at the Institute for Regenerative Medicine or Med School Boot Camp, among others.
For underrepresented minorities, many of whom may lack resources in their high schools, from mentors to enrichment programs, the nurturing of a biomedical career, even knowledge of it as a career, is even tougher. The national numbers bear this out. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) report that about 14 percent of PhD students are from under-represented minorities. The National Science Foundation puts science and engineering postdocs at about seven to eight percent. And, faculty numbers are still lower, with firm figures hard to come by. A 2011 National Research Council report stated that two percent of tenured and tenure-track faculty at medical schools in the basic sciences are underrepresented minorities.
For the past two decades, the Penn Biomedical Graduate Studies program has been doing their part to reverse this trend. For undergrads, the Summer Undergraduate Internship Program (SUIP) is a 10-week internship to give underrepresented minorities experience in biomedical research. In fact, in 2014, 18 percent of incoming underrepresented minority graduate students in the Perelman School of Medicine were previous SUIP participants and in 2015, the numbers increased to 33 percent.
But what about the leap from undergrad to graduate school?
This is where assistant dean for Research Training Programs Arnaldo Diaz, PhD
, said there is an especially difficult gap to fill. The 11-year-old PennPREP
(Post-Baccalaureate Research Education Program) fills that need. It is a one- to two-year research experience for students who have completed their undergraduate degree and are interested in pursuing a PhD in biomedical sciences. This post-baccalaureate program provides research experience and preparation for applying to and succeeding in graduate school.
Diaz defines research experience as the students “having their own independent project under the guidance of a faculty mentor. They’re not just an extra pair of hands in the lab.” The program also provides workshops on communication skills, grant writing, and networking, and is supported by a grant from the NIH. “PREP provides a supportive environment for the students that enables them to develop their skills and hone their confidence,” he said.
Sixty-one students have completed the PREP program and nine are currently enrolled. Diaz says that approximately 80 percent have continued on to PhD programs, with the remainder going on to medical school, industry, or other academic positions. Ten of these students were successfully recruited to Penn’s PhD programs.
In fact, Daniel Villarreal, PhD, a PREP alumni, gave the keynote at this year’s SUIP end-of-summer symposium. Villarreal, also a Penn doctoral alumnus from the lab of David Weiner, PhD, told the students that as a former gang member in San Diego, he wanted to be a graffiti artist, but because of encouragement from his dad, his high school principal, and other mentors, he morphed into the “school nerd” in late middle school, spending summers at the UCSD medical school. He still loves art and his old neighborhood and shared his hard-won wisdom with the next generation: “Be yourself. Stand up for what you believe. Be creative, which includes science.”
“Danny used his time in PREP to really gain the experience and develop the skills he needed to succeed in graduate school,” Diaz said. “He has dozens and dozens of immunology articles in high-impact journals and recently landed a research scientist position with Johnson & Johnson.”
Javier E. Sierra-Pagán, a second-year student with PREP working in the laboratory of Jon Epstein, MD, called his experience a “phenomenal opportunity.” Sierra-Pagán is studying the mechanisms that drive cardiovascular development. “I get to work with Dr. Epstein, a very well recognized scientist in the field who is really interested in teaching young researchers like me on how to start our careers and critically think about scientific questions,” he said. What’s more, Sierra-Pagán adds that Diaz “encouraged me to apply for an NIH grant, which I got, in order for me to have a stronger CV and foundation to start my career.”
By the same token, Lumena Louis, now a third-year doctoral student, also in the Weiner lab working on DNA vaccines, said PREP readied her for graduate school by gaining a better understanding of the many things necessary to succeed, including endurance and perseverance, strong critical thinking and reading skills, and the ability to network and explain your work.
Vicki Mercado, a current PREP scholar working in the lab of Warren Pear, MD, PhD, on epigenetics and leukemia, stated that, “while I have comprehensive experiences, these were limited to a few summer months, or occurred while I was balancing classes and part-time jobs unrelated to lab work. PREP gives me the opportunity to fully immerse myself in my scientific interests and provides training, exposure, and guidance which all grant a better understanding of what an MD/PhD program will be like.” For Mercado, the program gives her the reassurance that pursuing a career as a physician-scientist is the absolute right path for her.
The routes that these PREP students take may not so much be a linear pipeline, but more a meandering track of ever–broadening experiences. “PREP also gave me access to graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, who served as mentors,” Louis added. And like any good mentors-in-training, Louis is paying it backward and forward: “I now do my best to assist the mission of the PREP program to empower future scientists from traditionally underrepresented populations.”
Images of PennPREP scholars
Top: Javier E. Sierra-Pagán,left, with MD/PhD student Eduardo Torre. Credit: John Donges
Middle: Lumena Louis