A multi-million dollar federal grant – one of the largest at the University of Arizona with layers of mentoring and training to ensure the representation of minorities interested in biomedicine, biotechnology and life-sciences careers – has recently been renewed.
With $7 million from the National Institutes of Health, the UA will continue its partnership with Pima Community College to train postdoctoral scientists for tenure-track careers.
The grant provides postdoctoral fellows with a UA faculty mentored research experience, and it also provides a mentored teaching experience with Pima faculty. The fellows shadow Pima faculty members and learn teaching skills before taking over classes at various Pima campuses.
Also, through the grant, Pima faculty members are offered the opportunity to gain research experience and take classes at the UA. In addition, postdoctoral fellows hire Pima students to help them conduct research experiments and explore science as a career option.
According to the NIH, underrepresented minorities constitute a small fraction of the postdoctoral fellows in the life sciences and an even smaller fraction of the principal investigators of NIH research grants. In addition, the number of underrepresented minority applicants for research grants and training positions is very low.
To help combat the decline a decade ago, the NIH's National Center for General Medicine Sciences issued a call for proposals, and the UA's program was the second in the country to receive funding. There are now 16 programs nationwide receiving the grant, and the UA's program is one of the largest.
"The grant is important because it seeks to address the declining numbers of underrepresented minority students entering graduate school and the even smaller number who choose careers in biomedical science," said Nicholas J. Strausfeld, director of the UA's Center for Insect Science and principal investigator for the Postdoctoral Excellence in Research and Teaching program that the NIH grant funds.
"Our emphasis is to increase the number of Hispanic and Native American students entering the fields of bioscience and biomedicine, given the growing demographics nationally of Hispanics and the location of our University and its surrounding population," Strausfeld added.
Strausfeld said people are often surprised to find the NIH National Institute of Medicine program housed at the Center for Insect Science, but he said the program serves as a means to teach how research is conducted to anyone interested in science. The grant serves many Pima students, including those who are interested in medical and biotechnology careers.
Since its inception, the UA Postdoctoral Excellence in Research and Teaching program, known as the PERT program, has supported the work of more than 50 postdoctoral fellows at the UA, 74 Pima students who have been hired to help the fellows conduct research, and 11 faculty teaching mentors at Pima.
"Without the partnership with Pima – a Minority Serving Institution – this grant would not be possible," Strausfeld said. He also credits the PERT program coordinator, Teresa Kudrna for strengthening the mentorship ties and opportunities with and for Pima.
The grant funds a modern biotechnology lab at the Pima West Campus to enhance student learning and also funds classes Pima faculty are interested in taking at the UA, as well as Pima faculty research conducted at the UA. For instance, five Pima faculty members conducted research on the UA campus over the summer.
JodyLee Estrada Duek, a biology professor at Pima, has mentored eight UA PERT fellows, taken UA classes and worked in the research lab of John Hildebrand, a UA Regents' Professor of neurobiology and director of the Arizona Research Laboratories division of neurobiology. She is most excited about the opportunities the program provides for the minority population she teaches at Pima's Desert Vista Campus.
"The grant provides an excellent opportunity for wonderful students looking to open doors for themselves, and it gives the students and Pima faculty an added enthusiasm for research," said Duek.
Brad Fiero is the PERT program's co-principal investigator at the Pima campuses and works to ensure students and faculty mentors are aware of the opportunities within the program.
The UA PERT program's 70 percent rate of hire to tenured track positions draws in the best from throughout the nation. Currently, the UA PERT program funds 17 postdoctoral fellows including Toby Daly-Engel, Anne Leonard, Paul Marek and Patrick Williams.
Daly-Engle, who holds a doctorate in zoology from the University of Hawai'i at Mānoa, said she considered many other programs before applying for the UA PERT program.
"I looked at a lot of jobs after graduating, and nothing compares to what is offered at the UA through the PERT program," she said. "To have three years to work on a research project while learning vital teaching skills in a supportive cohort community is beyond the usual norm for postdocs."
She currently mentors two Pima students and will begin her semester of teaching at Pima in the fall.
"In the usual postdoc opportunities of one year to 18 months, there is no way to think about teaching and refining your skills while getting your research project going and looking ahead to what your next career steps will be," said Marek, who holds a doctorate in biology from East Carolina University. He currently mentors two Pima students whom he has taken out to the field for a week to conduct research.
Leonard holds a doctorate in animal behavior, and Williams holds a doctorate in neuroscience.
Though many of the PERT fellows come from varying fields of research expertise, the program's core is structured to provide support.
"It provides a cool interdisciplinary group. We get together and though scientifically we speak different languages, we get to talk about and see the different ways and approaches of doing science," Daly-Engel added.
The director of the NIH deemed the program stellar and the program's outcomes support that assessment.
Said Strausfeld: "Our post doctoral fellows get jobs faster than those in other departments or programs because universities want to hire those who can teach, conduct research and write papers, which is what we prepare our fellows to do."