If psychology departments want to recruit more minorities into their graduate programs, most will need to change their enrollment strategies, a 1997 report found. Instead of expecting minority students to come to them--the traditional approach--they'll need to go to minority undergraduates and sell careers in psychological research to them, continued the report from APA's Commission on Ethnic Minority Recruitment, Retention and Training in Psychology (CEMRRAT).

Now, more departments are doing just that through a joint project between APA and the federal National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) that moves more minority students into psychology's biomedical areas of research--including AIDS, stress, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and substance abuse. According to APA's Office of Ethnic Minority Affairs (OEMA), these are areas that may disproportionately affect some minority communities, but that, historically, few minorities have chosen to study.

In 1996, NIGMS granted OEMA a three-year, $750,000 grant to test a model program developed by CEMRRAT that takes a systemic approach to increasing the minority pipeline in biomedical psychology. The office also received a three-year renewal grant of $1.4 million in 2000 and is developing a second three-year renewal application for more than $2 million.

"The APA/NIGMS project is demonstrating that scientific interest can be ignited in minority students," says Bertha Holliday, PhD, OEMA director.

An area of shortage

The federal government has long recognized that minorities are underrepresented in the biomedical sciences, says Holliday, but its traditional response to the problem--providing research and training grants to ethnic-minority graduate and postdoctoral students--wasn't working.

Data collected by APA's research department in 2000 show that of the roughly 37,400 students enrolled in doctoral programs in psychology, 7.5 percent were black, almost 5 percent were Latino, just fewer than 8 percent were Asian and about 1 percent were Native-American. In that same year, of those students seeking PhDs in research subfields--including biomedical areas of psychology--5 percent were black, 4.2 percent were Latino, 8.7 percent were Asian and 1.5 percent were Native-American.

"Ethnic-minority biomedical researchers are urgently needed to address the health and behavioral concerns of America's growing communities of color," says Holliday, citing 2000 census data predicting that people of color will be the majority population by 2050.

The APA/NIGMS project aims to increase the number of students seeking graduate degrees in biomedical areas by:

  • Linking major research universities with predominately minority-serving institutions--such as historically black colleges and universities, Native Ameri-can tribal colleges and junior colleges with large ethnic-minority enrollments-- in five geographic regions.

  • Using a collaborative, strategic planning process that is moderated by psychologists--not affiliated with a region's participating institutions--who specialize in diversity and scientific consulting.

  • Demonstrating the effectiveness of innovative recruitment, retention and training strategies, and also documenting, institutionalizing and disseminating those strategies.

  • Documenting and evaluating the impact of the collaborative approach on student achievement and programs.

Holliday, a community psychologist, says she's proudest of this aspect of the program. "The systemic focus has resulted not only in positive effects on the project's participating students, but also in specific departmental and--in a few instances--institutional change," she says. "A few participating psychology departments have rethought their undergraduate education paradigms to ensure that research training is accessible and attractive to a more socially and ethnically diverse student clientele."

Both the provost and dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Miami (UM), for example, were so impressed by the psychology students' progress and enthusiasm over the Southeastern region's APA/NIGMS program--called PRIME (Psychology Research Initiatives Mentorship Experience)--that they responded positively to a request from psychology chairman Rod Wellens, PhD, to provide matching funds to launch PRIME II. This replica expands PRIME's focus. "PRIME II gives us the flexibility to target all of our students, regardless of ethnicity or psychology research interest," says Victoria Noriega, PhD, undergraduate studies director at UM's psychology department.

Recent APA data show that the APA/NIGMS program is succeeding in its goal of exposing students to opportunities in biomedical psychology. Nearly 5,000 students have been secondary program participants, attending project-related courses, lectures or seminars. About 350 minorities have been primary participants, receiving intensive mentoring and research experiences; nearly 90 of these students have presented their research at regional, national and international conferences; and approximately 60 have pursued graduate studies.

Success in the Southeast

One student carrying out the program's mission is Rona Carter, a 2001 PRIME fellow at Florida International University (FIU). Last fall, Carter began FIU's doctoral program in developmental psychology. She plans to focus her research on the biopsychosocial issues of African-American, Latina and Asian girls--especially those with such behavioral problems as delinquency, substance abuse or running away from home.

"The experiences of girls of color are not included in the research literature," Carter says. "Because of that, we don't know whether research findings on other populations--for problems such as self-esteem, eating disorders and anxiety--apply to them or not."

Carter credits clinical psychologist Wendy K. Silverman, PhD, her PRIME mentor at FIU, for inspiring her research. "The one-on-one time I spent with her exploring my ideas was essential to my growth," Carter says.

The foundation of PRIME--which includes undergraduate students from UM, FIU and Miami-Dade Community College (MDCC)--is a 10-week summer mentoring program. UM and FIU students apply for a stipend that pays them $1,500 to work 20 hours per week in a research lab on either campus. They choose a mentor who helps them develop a research project. At the end of the session, they present their findings as a poster before other PRIME participants from both campuses. MDCC students participate as PRIME associates--they take part in some activities but are not required to do a research project.

"The idea is for students to give their first presentation in a place that's collegial and friendly, so they're not so terrified," says Noriega, team leader for APA/NIGMS at UM.

Students from both campuses get a second shot at presenting their research at an undergraduate research conference co-sponsored by UM, FIU and MDCC each fall. "We encourage students to give an oral presentation," says Noriega. "Our program is based on helping students build confidence and gain experience little by little."

Carter says the program's emphasis on presenting research gave her the confidence to present her PRIME poster at APA's 2002 Annual Convention. "The connections I made with PRIME students, having them as a support network to talk about my research project, to practice presenting my findings, and to get feedback from them in addition to the mentors, was really helpful," says Carter, whose poster won a Psi Chi research award. "I can't emphasize enough how much I benefited from PRIME and how the experience has impacted my educational path."