Training our Nation’s Next Generation of Scientists
When Javier Barranco arrived at The University of Texas at San Antonio in the summer of 2011 from the Dominican Republic, he already knew he wanted to delve further into biomedical research. The first-generation college student found the tools and support he needed in a federally funded program that has been training student scientists at UTSA for more than three decades.
The Minority Biomedical Research Support–Research Initiative for Scientific Enhancement (MBRS–RISE) program has not only paid the biology senior for his work in a faculty member’s research lab but has also covered his costs to attend conferences and has made him more competitive for graduate school. This summer he will be working in a research lab at NYU Medical School and presenting his research findings at a conference in Connecticut, an internship opportunity he credits to the MBRS program. “They are like a coach of a football team,” he said. “They are coaching us in how to become better scientists. They also help us develop professionally.” Barranco is one of hundreds of students who have benefited from two research training programs the UTSA College of Sciences began offering in 1979 which have been continuously funded by the National Institutes of Health. The programs are designed to train students for graduate school and develop faculty and support research in the biomedical sciences, with a focus on underrepresented and financially disadvantaged populations.
“These programs are specifically put together, mandated by Congress, to address the underrepresentation of certain ethnic groups,” said Andrew Tsin, professor of biochemistry and physiology and director of the Center for Research and Training in the Sciences (CRTS), which administers 12 research and training programs across a range of disciplines at UTSA, including the Minority Access to Research Careers (MARC) and MBRS programs. CRTS has a clear mission, he said. “It’s a very simple concept. We all work to support students, support faculty and support the institution to be more competitive, more successful professionally.”
In addition to MBRS–RISE, there is an undergraduate pre-Ph.D. training program, Minority Access to Research Careers–Undergraduate Student Training for Academic Research (MARC– U*STAR). MARC funds students’ work in the lab, tuition, travel expenses and other training expenses. It is an honors program for juniors and seniors, and MBRS–RISE supports undergraduates and Ph.D. students. About half of the trainees go on to earn a Ph.D., said Gail Taylor, assistant director of both programs. Through the current grant cycle ending in May of 2016, MARC was awarded more than $2.4 million. MBRS–RISE was funded almost $3.9 million for the cycle ending July 31.
Since the programs began, 641 students have participated in either MBRS–RISE or MARC, Taylor said. There are currently 56 students in the programs, 13 in MARC and 28 undergraduates and 15 Ph.D. students in MBRS–RISE. By being placed in paid research positions, the students have fewer commitments to juggle and can focus on their coursework and research, rather than having to take on another job to pay expenses.
The programs are designed to develop both confidence and competence in students, so that when they leave, they have received a true education, said Edwin Barea-Rodriguez, program director of MARC and MBRS–RISE. Students are mentored by faculty, go to conferences, present their research and receive practical skills training. “Our program is more about mentorship and personal development,” Barea-Rodriguez said. “We teach them about being financially responsible, and we teach them about leadership. Our approach to this program is holistic. The usual assumption is that, when students come to the university, they are mature enough to deal with everyday things that happen. But that is not the case.”
“If I hadn’t participated in the program, I wouldn’t be as well-prepared or as confident as I am,” said Barranco, who plans to apply to an M.D./Ph.D. program after he graduates and eventually wants to join a university faculty.
The faculty program MBRS–Support for Competitive Research (SCORE) supports faculty research projects with the goal of receiving mainstream grant funding. Currently, 14 projects are funded through the program, including projects in biology, chemistry, psychology, biomedical engineering, electrical engineering and physics, for a total of more than $15 million in funding. The budget for all MBRS faculty projects currently is about $2.9 million annually, said George Negrete, program director and professor of chemistry.
UTSA faculty face challenges—among them higher student load than many other research universities and students requiring extra support—which are easier to meet with this kind of support. “You need some laces to pull yourself up by the bootstraps,” Negrete said. The SCORE program provides benefits that flow far beyond the research lab of the faculty member, Andrew Tsin said. “It is developmental because we like to focus on junior faculty. Because these faculty members teach in a minority institution, their success at building research here is going to benefit all of our students.” “The SCORE office assists faculty applying for funding under the program by sending their applications out for blind review before they are submitted,” Negrete said. The resulting feedback allows faculty to polish their applications. “As a result, our success rate for funded applications is pretty high—26.2 percent. This is about as good as it gets right now.”
“You need some laces to pull yourself up by the bootstraps.”
Developing students into scientists has been the life’s work of CRTS Director Tsin. Over his 30-year career at UTSA, the professor has personally mentored 100 students. “I have to give my students complete access to my time,” he said. “We work together side by side in the lab. My first mission at UTSA is to be an educator.” Tsin is the founding director of CRTS, which was created in 2007 to more efficiently administer multiple training programs for students and faculty, including MARC and MBRS. Twelve programs fall under the center’s administration, including programs for faculty research support and STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) education programs. Tsin also directs the Research Centers in Minority Institutions (RCMI) program, which is funded by the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities through NIH to create core research facilities at minority institutions offering doctorates in health sciences.
“I tell them that my role is to try to infect them with the virus of getting excited about research,” Tsin said. “But I never tell my students what to do. I believe that my role is to facilitate.”
In December in recognition of his career-long dedication to mentoring students, Tsin received the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring. Meeting President Barack Obama in the Oval Office was an honor and a highlight of his career, he said. The award includes $25,000 from the National Science Foundation to further the recipient’s mentoring efforts. The award will mostly be used to support five undergraduates from other institutions to do STEM research during the summer. Tsin also was named a fellow in the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Section on Biological Sciences, the only UTSA professor elected a fellow in 2011. The tradition of peerelected AAAS fellows began in 1874.
Tsin’s mentoring talents made a big impression on Melissa de la Garza. He mentored de la Garza while she earned her master’s in biology. She worked in his lab, where his research focuses on the biochemistry of the visual process. “He really cares about his students,” she said. “I don’t think he is trying to push anybody to do what they don’t want to do. As busy as he is, if you are sitting in his office, he is paying attention to you.”
Although she went to veterinary school instead of into a Ph.D. program, de la Garza said she continues to engage in a research environment in her position at the Texas Biomedical Research Institute, where she is the primary clinician for the facility’s chimpanzees. Her participation in the MARC program made it possible for her to earn her bachelor's and master’s degrees at UTSA, she said. “It was lifesaving. I say that first month I was here in San Antonio I lost 10 pounds because I didn’t have money for food. I remember my paycheck was $417 a month. I lived well on that $417. It paid my tuition as well. Financially I would not have been able to do it, and it opened so many horizons for me. I never imagined I would be working in a research lab and going to conferences. I thought I was going to get a job at the mall.”
UTSA offers a range of programs designed to support underserved and disadvantaged students. Among these are the NSF-funded Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation program to increase the number of underrepresented students completing STEM programs; A Comprehensive Strategy Based on Established Best-Practices for Increasing Female Minority Participation and Success in Engineering, a project of the Center for Excellence in Engineering Education in the College of Engineering funded by the U.S. Department of Education; Lift-Off: Curriculum Improvement for Enhancing Minority Education in Engineering, a partnership between UTSA and San Antonio College funded by NASA; and Minority Student Recruitment, funded by the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering.