NIH grants extend programs at Brown focused on student diversity, success in Ph.D. science programs

The federal awards enable the extension of two separate Brown initiatives with a shared goal: to prepare students from underrepresented groups to succeed in STEM graduate programs and launch careers in the sciences.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — With renewed federal funding, Brown University faculty will extend two initiatives built to encourage the success of students historically underrepresented in STEM graduate programs and prepare them for careers in the sciences: the Initiative to Maximize Student Development and the Post-baccalaureate Research Education Program.

The National Institute of General Medical Sciences of the National Institutes of Health has awarded both programs renewed funding for the next five years: the grants for IMSD and PREP are $3.3 million and $1.6 million, respectively.

The two separate programs share similar goals, said Andrew Campbell, who co-leads both IMSD and PREP at Brown: increasing diversity among scientists earning Ph.D. degrees and giving them the tools to succeed in biomedical and behavioral sciences. 

"A wide diversity of experiences and perspectives among scientists is essential for problem-solving, for moving science forward, and for creating opportunities for the kinds of breakthroughs that make a difference in people's lives," said Campbell, who served for six years as dean of Brown’s Graduate School before returning to research and teaching as a professor of medical science. “Although IMSD is an established program now in its second decade and PREP is just entering its second five-year cycle, the renewals by NIH signal great confidence in the work we are doing here at Brown to expand diversity among the sciences.”

Campbell said the success of the programs in building and supporting a more diverse community of scientific scholars is illustrative of the University’s broader commitment through its campus-wide Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan and diversity and inclusion initiatives at the Graduate School.

“With IMSD and PREP, we’re establishing a suite of pathway programs at Brown that are achieving our shared vision for diversity, academic excellence and ultimately workforce change,” Campbell said.

Campbell has co-directed the Initiative to Maximize Student Development at Brown since its inception in 2008; since 2012, the co-director of IMSD has been Elizabeth Harrington, associate dean for graduate and postdoctoral studies in the Division of Biology and Medicine. The IMSD research training program provides students in underrepresented groups with professional development opportunities, academic support and a community that enhances success in their Ph.D. programs and positions them as highly competitive for postdoctoral positions and scientific careers of their choice. IMSD at Brown partners with 24 graduate programs in STEM fields.

IMSD at Brown supports 12 Ph.D. students a year with an advising plan and support structure, as well as skill-based training modules that focus on areas that may not have been fully developed by appointed student trainees at their undergraduate institutions, such as scientific writing and statistical analysis of data. While required for IMSD trainees, the modules are open to other Brown graduate students, as well.

The renewals by NIH signal great confidence in the work we are doing here at Brown to expand diversity among the sciences.

Andrew G. Campbell Professor of Medical Science, Brown University
Andrew Campbell

Last summer, the Journal for STEM Education Research published a study, co-authored by Campbell and Harrington, that detailed the 10-year outcomes of IMSD at Brown. The results showed sustained improvement in compositional diversity, retention and degree attainment of students in the program relative to their peers. The study also showed the success of participants in publishing studies, securing national fellowships and finding job placements in the biomedical, behavioral and physical sciences.

With the five-year renewal, Campbell likened IMSD to an “integration hub” that brings together underrepresented students in the sciences at Brown.

“Underrepresented students in Ph.D. programs often experience a sense of isolation,” Campbell said. “But with IMSD, we’re bringing together small groups of underrepresented students from across the University with shared scientific interests to do interdisciplinary work with each other and with faculty. We’re building a community that extends forward, to the workforce, as well as to students just starting on their pathway to a Ph.D. degree.”

A continuum of pathways programs

Like IMSD, the Post-baccalaureate Research Education Program at Brown is designed to support students from historically underrepresented groups as well as first-generation college students. These students may not have had access to the research experiences, academic programs or dedicated mentorships that can help position them for success in graduate school, said Carlos Aizenman, a professor of neuroscience who co-leads PREP with Campbell and Amanda Jamieson, an associate professor of molecular microbiology and immunology.

PREP is a one-year internship for college graduates that addresses the critical transition into, and successful completion of, rigorous biomedical, research-focused, doctoral degree programs. Over 75% of the program involves direct participation in research, Aizenman said, but students also take academic courses, join professional development sessions and build community among faculty and peers.

Not only does the program strive to increase diversity within biomedical graduate programs, but it also provides promising students with tools to be more resilient and successful in their fields — “by improving participants’ academic credentials, enhancing research skills and building confidence in their abilities to successfully matriculate and complete a Ph.D. program,” Aizenman said.

In its first five years, the program has been successful, he noted: An estimated 90% of students who complete PREP at Brown are accepted to a Ph.D. program.

“PREP is definitely working — it’s doing what we set out to do, and the NIH funding will allow us to keep PREP at Brown running for another five years,” Aizenman said, adding that he hopes the program will eventually receive long-term support that can extend it far into the future. In the meantime, leaders plan to coordinate with regional PREP programs at other institutions to expand the cohort beyond the Brown campus.

PREP and IMSD share more than values and goals, Campbell noted: Some of the IMSD learning modules are applicable to PREP students; and the IMSD students are among the Ph.D. candidates who serve as mentors to the PREP students. Students in both programs become part of the same community at Brown, and connect with partner programs at other institutions.

“We’re extending and connecting pathways programs to build a continuum of support and training for students and expanding a community that values diversity in the sciences,” Campbell said.

The NIGMS grant supporting IMSD is 1T32GM144926-01A1; the NIGMS grant supporting PREP is 2R25GM125500-06.