MU Receives $3.1 Million Grant to Fund Biomedical Research Program for Students

The University of Missouri has received a $3.1 million grant from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS), a branch of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which will provide funding for undergraduate and graduate students to conduct research.

“As the only four-year comprehensive public university in the state, the University of Missouri plays a crucial role in providing training opportunities to students of the state of Missouri,” said Daniel Janes, program director for NIGMS. “The Initiative for Maximizing Student Development (IMSD) program will enable MU to offer a biomedical training program to underrepresented minorities that is peerless across the state and beyond.”

The five-year grant, which runs through 2017, will fund research conducted by seven or eight graduate students. It also provides for 30 freshmen and sophomore researchers and 15 juniors and seniors per year participating in the Exposure to Research for Science Students (EXPRESS) program. The grant, funded through the IMSD program at NIGMS, will also help cover materials, supplies, peer mentors and staff salaries.

In addition, it will allow MU to bring in guest speakers and pay for students to present their research at scientific conferences. Money from the NIGMS grant will also be allocated for stipends and tuition for beginning graduate students at Mizzou.

“The MU faculty are tremendously talented in their research and excellent mentors of undergraduate and graduate students,” said Mark Hannink, a professor of biochemistry and the principal investigator on the grant. “We have an enthusiastic and growing number of underrepresented minorities at MU eager to learn about scientific research by working in a laboratory.” 

The IMSD program aims to increase the number of underrepresented minority students that seek and achieve a PhD degree in the biomedical sciences.

“The research experience at MU helped me develop as a scientist and taught me to think critically about scientific problems,” said Angela Whatley, who, while at MU, conducted research that focused on evaluating new therapeutics for HIV. “The IMSD program provided mentoring and social support for me at many stages of my graduate school career. It allowed me to get connected with other minority graduate students in other departments.”

After completing graduate school, Whatley was accepted into the Presidential Management Fellows program, which is the premier federal program for helping individuals with advanced degrees find work in government service. She is now working for the Veterans Health Administration Office of Research and Development in Washington, D.C.

“There is considerable value added to the training of minority students through the design of the IMSD program,” said Michael Garcia, associate professor of biological sciences and member of the IMSD advisory committee at MU. “Scientific development is much more than performing experiments and functioning as a teaching assistant. It includes the ability to critically analyze current literature and effective communication. The IMSD enhances these abilities by providing graduate students with forums to listen to and present their research.”

Through the grant, freshmen and sophomores get an opportunity to work in research labs alongside faculty scientists, graduate students and upperclassmen, while juniors and seniors will receive funding to conduct independent research projects and present their work at national conferences. 

“Many science majors start college with the idea of going to medical school, and don't realize the other options available to them,” Hannink said. “They may wish to ‘wage a war on cancer,’ however, biomedical researchers are as necessary as physicians to win that war.” 

EXPRESS is a specifically-designed program for undergraduate students at MU who are from ethnic groups that are underrepresented in the sciences. The program has received prior funding through an NIH grant and the success of the program has allowed for the grant to be renewed.

After two years in EXPRESS, senior Ellis Tibbs now serves as a peer mentor for the program.

“EXPRESS opens up any research opportunity you want,” Tibbs said. “My first research opened up many different doors and I got a chance to go to research conferences and network with research faculty.”

That networking and research experience led Tibbs to summer research-intensive programs at Yale in 2011 and Michigan State last summer.

Mariah McClain has also seen all sides of the program. After four years of working in different capacities within the EXPRESS program, she feels confident heading into graduate school.

“I’m well prepared for what graduate school will bring,” says McClain, a biology and psychology major from Jefferson City, Mo. “I feel I have a large advantage over some of my peers that lack similar research experience.”

EXPRESS operates out of the Office of Undergraduate Research. Participants work in campus laboratories and attend workshops on bench skills, research ethics, career options, and academic success. 

“The goal of EXPRESS is to get more students interested in research careers in biomedical sciences,” said Linda Blockus, director of undergraduate research. “This grant enables us to support undergraduate and graduate students as they work towards their PhD degrees, gaining cognitive, technical and professional skills along the way.  It is an absolute delight each May to send our graduates off into the world to become research scientists that will solve the biomedical puzzles of tomorrow."

EXPRESS Program Coordinator Brian Booton says MU’s version of the peer mentoring component is somewhat unique nationally among IMSD programs. “These upperclassmen really take the younger students under their wings and serve as coaches, allies and advocates for incoming students,” Booton says. “They are instrumental in creating a strong community of underrepresented biomedical research students.”