NIH awards WSU, Detroit colleges $21.2 million to improve student diversity in biomedical research

I was attracted to Wayne State University because it has the institutional characteristics necessary (it is comprehensive, urban, public and has high research activity) to make a significant impact in its community and beyond.

On Oct. 22, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) made an announcement that will help us do exactly that. We learned that a consortium comprised of Wayne State University, Marygrove College, University of Detroit Mercy and Wayne County Community College District has been awarded $21.2 million over five years to implement a program encouraging more undergraduate students from underrepresented and economically disadvantaged backgrounds to pursue careers in biomedical research.

The grant was awarded through the NIH's Building Infrastructure Leading to Diversity (BUILD) initiative, created to get a more diverse body of students in the STEM pipeline, expose students to research in laboratories and enhance the research-training environment. Studies have shown that students from underrepresented backgrounds enter early biomedical research training in numbers that reflect the general population, but they are less likely to persist.

I'm very familiar with the BUILD initiative and its possibilities. Prior to joining Wayne State, I co-chaired the NIH Common Fund committee, which resulted in this funding mechanism.

This is a fantastic opportunity for our consortium of Detroit higher education institutions to shift the paradigm in biomedical research and for Wayne State to take a significant step toward becoming one of the nation's preeminent public, urban research universities.

Our consortium's project is called REBUILD Detroit (Research Enhancement for Building Infrastructure Leading to Diversity). During the first year of the grant, our four partner institutions will redesign their respective curricula with an emphasis on peer mentoring, early introduction to laboratory research and dedicated faculty advising. The program will recruit its first cohort of students in the second year and begin their training.

In order to shift the paradigm of minorities in biomedical research, REBUILD Detroit's goals are aggressive: to have at least 75 percent of its scholars graduate with baccalaureate degrees in biomedical science-related fields and have 50 percent of those graduates matriculate into biomedical research doctoral programs, ideally here at Wayne State.

Since the curricular design will impact all undergraduate students enrolled in biomedical science courses, we're confident REBUILD Detroit will have a halo effect on far more students than those participating in the program. History has shown addressing challenges that disproportionately affect minority populations often has a transformative impact on the majority as well.

The elements of REBUILD Detroit correlate strongly with retention of science majors for both underrepresented and non-underrepresented minority populations. It's vital that students are aware of opportunities in the sciences as early as possible and understand we're here to support them to ensure they succeed.

Wayne State will serve as the research partner in the consortium. As such, we will mentor faculty from other institutions in research skills; provide research training opportunities; and provide REBUILD scholars with skills development in grant applications, graduate school preparedness and networking opportunities.

There are compelling reasons to promote diversity in biomedical research, and it's clear that diversity is fundamental to innovation. A variety of perspectives are critical to solve science's most complex problems, and the REBUILD Detroit project will train a more inclusive group of researchers and scientific leaders.

I'd like to congratulate Ambika Mathur, dean of the Graduate School, who is the principal investigator for Wayne State on this project and contributed greatly to the success of the overall proposal.

At the conclusion of our REBUILD project, I'm confident we will have identified effective strategies that can be shared with institutions around the country.

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