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Home > ARRA Stories > A Bridge to the Future: Educating the Next Generation of Biomedical Researchers
A Bridge to the Future: Educating the Next Generation of Biomedical Researchers

By Sara Harris

February 26, 2010

Talk about shovel-ready — Dr. Michael Leibowitz began placing orders for heavy equipment for his "bridge" and "pipeline" programs as soon as funding came through last summer.

He's not someone who pours concrete or solders steel; rather, Dr. Leibowitz is a physician, a Ph.D., and the Director of Graduate Academic Diversity at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ)-Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in Piscataway, N.J. His equipment, purchased with some of the $215,000 his bridge and pipeline programs received through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), will be used for training. What he's building supports a new, more diverse generation of researchers — call it a bridge to the future as well as a pipeline to research careers.

Photo of Michael J. Leibowitz and Guo-Qing Tang

Michael J. Leibowitz, M.D., Ph.D., Director of Graduate Academic Diversity, UMDNJ-Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, and postdoctoral fellow Guo-Qing Tang, with new spectrofluorometer.

The aim of both the bridge and pipeline programs is to give opportunities to promising students who are interested in biomedical science but have not had access to training or research opportunities. These individuals who have been found to be underrepresented in biomedical or behavioral research include, but are not limited to, Native Americans, Hispanic Americans or African Americans, for example, or they demonstrate a particular commitment to building a diverse community of researchers. Training the next generation of scientists and increasing the diversity of the scientific workforce are both missions of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS), which awarded the funding.

The bridge in question spans an ocean and more than 1,600 miles, linking New Jersey to Puerto Rico. It also covers the gap between a master's degree and doctoral-level scientific credentials. UMDNJ's partner university, the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez (UPRM), offers graduate training in biology, terminating in a master's degree. Every year, two students from UPRM join the bridge program, which lets them transition to a doctoral-level experience at the UMDNJ-Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences.

Spending summers in New Jersey conducting research, the students complete the required courses for the master's degree at UPRM in the first year. In their subsequent two years in New Jersey, they perform doctoral course work and build a body of research results that puts them well on the way to completing their doctoral degree. The grant pays for research supplies, students' salaries and tuition. Now in its ninth year, it has enrolled 19 students, all of whom are either working in biomedical sciences or continuing their training in the field.

The pipeline program aims to widen access to opportunities stateside (in New Jersey and elsewhere) for promising Ph.D. candidates, who are students largely from underrepresented minorities advancing toward degrees in biomedical science. As many as 40 students apply for the pipeline or bridge programs each year.

As with the students from Puerto Rico, many of the six pipeline students accepted in the Molecular Biosciences Graduate Program (MBGP) at UMDNJ-Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences each year do not have extensive experience in the laboratory. General program funding is used for tutors and other academic counseling, tuition or salary support for research training at one of two affiliated graduate programs, UMDNJ's Robert Wood Johnson Medical School or Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. All together, 73 students have gone through the program since 1996, and nearly 80 percent now hold a Ph.D. or are still pursuing their degree. Just as importantly, the program has encouraged a growing number of new minority undergraduates to enroll.

Dr. Leibowitz knew how to put the ARRA award to use right away. In January 2010, technicians installed technical equipment that will allow students to gain valuable experience in advanced analytical techniques. The funding also allowed Dr. Leibowitz to develop popular workshops on scientific writing and to help evaluate the impact of the programs on students.

The enhanced equipment and training in advanced biomedical research techniques will have an immediate effect on the students' research. The funding has an economic ripple effect as well, generating work for the U.S. companies that manufacture the equipment, the people who deliver it, and those who train faculty to use it. "We bought $190,000 of equipment — and somebody is getting work from that," Dr. Leibowitz said. But he is mindful of the long-term impact of the advanced training as well. It's "making trainees more employable by giving them better skills," he said.

The graduating students from the bridge and pipeline programs have a distinguished group of colleagues to join. Dr. Yvette Green Pittman joined the pipeline program in 2002 and is now a research fellow at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. The first person in her family to attend college, Pittman heard about the program when Dr. Leibowitz spoke at her university, Delaware State University in Dover, Delaware.

Support from the pipeline program helped smooth her transition from undergraduate studies at Delaware State, a historically black college, and was conducive to her success, she said. "The pipeline program encourage[d] me to complete my [graduate] coursework in two years versus one, which gave me a greater opportunity of doing well in my classes." While conducting research on protein synthesis in New Jersey, Dr. Pittman also took time to encourage the next generation by teaching middle school students about the scientific method as a classroom assistant.

As more underrepresented minority researchers establish their own laboratories, many expect they will turn their attention toward conditions disproportionately affecting minority communities. In addition, organizers hope these role models will inspire budding scientists.

As a Ph.D. candidate, Dr. Pittman took "great joy" in advising science-minded undergraduates about their opportunities and their role in advancing the field. When she talked with biology or chemistry students interested in pursuing Ph.D.s, "I always let them know [they are laying a] vital foundation for becoming a good scientist," she said.

Recovery Act Investment: The "UMDNJ-Rutgers University Pipeline Program" project received $115,873 and the "Bridge to the Doctoral Degree: University of Puerto Rico to University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey" received $98,672 from NIGMS in fiscal 2009.

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