Student in UTSA lab

UTSA biomedical research financial programs help underrepresented students

By Christi Fish
Public Affairs Specialist

(July 3, 2009)--When Derek Mendez started working toward his bachelor's degree in physics at UTSA, he dreamed of continuing as a graduate student to study biophysics. But, the 21-year-old San Antonio native had struggled to pay for his undergraduate schooling, and he wasn't sure he could deal with the financial burden brought on by graduate education. So, when a friend suggested he check into the UTSA Research Initiative for Scientific Enhancement (RISE) program, part of the Minority Biomedical Research Support (MBRS) family of support programs, he was excited when he found out what it had to offer.

"I was referred to the RISE program by a friend, and it seemed fairly easy to apply to, so I applied," Mendez said. "It has helped me a lot since I joined. The program offers funding, and it opens up doors for graduate studies. It even pays for students to attend academic conferences at least once a year. Overall, it's a great opportunity to get paid, while gaining experience in academia."

Undergraduate student Hector Palacios, 24, agreed. When he moved to the United States five years ago from his hometown of Mexico City, he expected to go back home to pursue his graduate education in molecular biology. "Although I'm an American citizen, I never expected to come to the U.S. to pursue my bachelor's degree," said Palacios. "Education is expensive in the U.S."

Fortunately, Palacios was doing research in an HIV lab at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, and a few of his co-workers had graduated from UTSA's Minority Access to Research Careers (MARC) program. They encouraged him to apply, and he was accepted into the program in January. Immediately, he received $2,050 to help with his spring semester tuition, and he receives an additional $922 stipend each month since enrolling in the program to help with his education and living expenses.

But the benefits of the UTSA MBRS and MARC programs are not strictly financial. Many of the programs' students also have earned acceptance into highly respected summer research programs at other universities. They are conducting that research now. Three students -- Margarita Hernandez, Erick Berdugo and Chris Pena -- will begin Ph.D. programs this fall at the University of Michigan, Texas A&M University and UT Southwestern Medical Branch at Dallas, respectively.

Overall, 41 RISE and MARC undergraduates have gone on to earn a Ph.D. and 36 are now in Ph.D. programs throughout the country including Harvard, Dartmouth, Penn State, Cornell and the UT Health Science Center at San Antonio. The program also supports doctoral students at UTSA with 20 having received their degrees and 21 more with degree programs in progress.

UTSA offers two federally funded programs which aim to increase the number of underrepresented students interested in earning a Ph.D. in order to pursue professional careers as research scientists in the biomedical sciences. Both are funded by the MORE division of the National Institute for General Medical Sciences.

The first, the MBRS-RISE program, offers financial and professional development support for up to 40 undergraduates and 15 doctoral students pursuing training in biomedical research. Participants are from all bachelor of science degree programs in the UTSA College of Sciences, as well as the biomedical engineering program at the Ph.D. level.

The MARC-U*STAR program provides a monthly stipend, partial tuition payments for 15 outstanding junior and senior level undergraduates majoring in biology, chemistry, mathematics, statistics, computer science and biomedical engineering. MARC students complete additional academic and research enrichment activities and also complete and present a final MARC thesis on their research. Both RISE and MARC students are funded to travel to national scientific conferences, attend local scientific seminars and network with top scientists throughout the country.

The UTSA MBRS student programs, the RISE and MARC programs, are open to Hispanic, African-American, Native American/Alaskan and Pacific Islander/Pilipino students. The program encourages submission of applications from students of all races who can demonstrate exceptional financial need.

To learn more, visit the MBRS Programs Web site or contact Gail Taylor, assistant program director, at (210) 458-5761.

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