Faculty at the University of Miami's psychology department thought they were making reasonable efforts to recruit ethnic-minority students into biomedical research, but felt they could take a stronger approach to mentoring. And that's just what they've done with the help of APA's Office of Ethnic Minority Affairs (OEMA). The office has shown faculty at this research-based institution more intensive, cross-institutional mentoring can attract more students to research areas in need of greater minority representation.
Making the cross-institutional mentoring possible is a joint venture of OEMA and the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS), a subsidiary of the National Institutes of Health. Almost four years ago, NIGMS awarded OEMA $820,000 to increase retention and recruitment of ethnic minorities in biomedical research. OEMA has in turn awarded the money to 14 universities and colleges in five regions of the country. Instead of pouring money into more pre- and postdoctoral programs, OEMA funds departmental activities that expand the educational pipeline in biomedical psychology at the undergraduate level.
"I think it's important to focus on an area where we really have an under-representation of ethnic minorities," says Bertha Holliday, PhD, OEMA director, who notes that nearly 70 percent of ethnic-minority psychologists are in clinical, counseling or school psychology. "So by the time you get to the biomedical areas, you have very few minorities. There's a concern in terms of the next 20 to 25 years whether we're going to have any type of meaningful representation of people of color in the scientific areas of psychology."
To increase the pool of undergraduate ethnic minorities in psychology, the APA/NIGMS program requires educational institutions to develop research workshops and change their curricula, among other strategies. For instance, Truman College, a two-year university in Chicago, has created a new biopsychology course. (For more examples of the various institutions and their activities, see chart, page 45.)
But the program's main mission is to expose minority students to the rigors of research early in their academic careers. It does this through mentoring and collaboration between the major research universities that run biomedical research programs and the two- and four-year schools that enroll many of the minority students they seek to attract. A particularly strong example of such a collaboration is the one between the University of Miami and its neighbors, Florida International University (FIU) and Miami-Dade Community College.
In the Miami collaboration, faculty have developed a 10-week summer research workshop and a year-long research activity called Psychology Research Initiatives Mentorship Experience (PRIME). Open to minority students from all three schools, the workshop pairs students with professors from FIU or the University of Miami to pursue laboratory-based research on such biomedical topics as AIDS, diabetes, heart disease, cancer and autism.
At the end of the summer, students and professors present results in a poster session at an annual PRIME Research Day. Students also meet with graduate teaching assistants to talk about topic selection, poster preparation, ethics in the research lab and any problems or concerns. PRIME students from Miami-Dade go to FIU or the University of Miami for the summer program after spending the first six weeks of the summer in a class to prepare them for research lab work. They then help the students from the other universities with research, attend weekly meetings and prepare the posters.
"This way PRIME students get some help, and the Miami-Dade students learn how to complete a poster and see the project come to fruition," says University of Miami's Victoria Noriega, PhD. "It's a minimal drain on the professor because you have the graduate student teaching assistant and the students helping each other," she says.
Aside from offering research workshops, PRIME has encouraged changes to course curricula at all three schools. To prepare University of Miami students for the research rigors of the PRIME workshop and graduate school, Noriega and her colleagues developed a course introducing students to research and careers in psychology. The course and its workshop are open to all students, but only ethnic-minority students receive money from the NIGMS fund. In the course, Noriega focuses on how to pick a research mentor, select and apply to a graduate school and prepare for the Graduate Record Examination, among other topics.
Although the course is open to all students, Noriega says the class is geared more for sophomores and juniors. However, the department has recently developed a year-long orientation program for freshmen to acquaint them with the department and research in psychology.
The courses have been so well-received, they are now officially part of the curriculum. The University of Miami's introduction to research course has also inspired Bennett Schwartz, PhD, a psychology professor at FIU, to create a summer seminar based on Noriega's syllabus. All students involved in NIGMS are required to take the course, but students not supported by NIGMS may also enroll.
Spirit of collaboration
Evelyn Diaz, PhD, chair of psychology and education at Miami-Dade, believes that frequent contact among faculty and students at different schools is also key to attracting minority students to research. Periodically, researchers from FIU or the University of Miami will visit Miami-Dade Community College to inform students about the importance of research, career opportunities and the general outlook of psychology. Students can follow up with those researchers to learn more. Faculty from the three Miami-area institutions also meet regularly, which has led to other benefits.
"Now if I learn that a student is interested in schizophrenia or medical psychology, for example, I know the people at the University of Miami conducting that kind of research, and I can direct the student to them," says Schwartz. "And since FIU has such a strong industrial/organizational program, Miami can send students to us as well. I think one of the nice things about the NIGMS program is that it's really improved communication between the schools."
In addition, Rod Wellens, PhD, chair of the psychology department at the University of Miami, has built strong ties with representatives from the university's honors program, arts and sciences summer research program and alumni groups. Marvin Dunn, PhD, chair of the psychology department at FIU, believes that, ultimately, stronger connections between area schools leads to better mentoring of minority students, which can make all the difference to their research careers.
"When minority students have access to mentors it makes a difference in terms of their willingness to take on high-level research and stay with it," says Dunn.
However, despite the goodwill the NIGMS program has fostered among institutions, its future is uncertain. The original NIGMS grant in 1996 had a three-year limit--the program should have officially ended September 1999. However, OEMA received an extension until September 2000, which allowed the office to give all 14 schools another $5,000 each.
And because the program has proven so successful, its founders are fighting to keep it alive. Before the University of Miami became involved with NIGMS, Noriega says only one or two students per year produced an honors thesis; since NIGMS, the number has jumped to 11 per year with over half of those being produced by minority students. To keep up that kind of momentum, APA's Bertha Holliday and her staff have already submitted a grant renewal proposal to NIMGS for another five years of funding.
"We expect to do great things with the APA/NIGMS project," says Holliday. "If we receive additional funding, we anticipate one-third of the project's students will pursue biomedical research careers. We also hope the program will continue to change the behaviors of participating psychology departments, and we expect that the departments will create model programs that can be disseminated to other psychology departments and biomedical scientific associations."
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