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by Andrea Widener
Experiencing the realities of a research lab can be life-altering for some students.
Exrop students Jabari Miller (right) and Alexandra Boye-Doe (left) shared stories with former EXROP student Ana Cristancho (center) at a program meeting at HHMI headquarters last May.
When Shearman Jabari Miller looked around the biology department during his undergraduate years at Georgia State University, he saw mostly white and Asian faces among the graduate students, postdocs, and professors.
But this summer the graduating senior and biology major, who is African American, took a step toward changing that picture, through HHMI's Exceptional Research Opportunities Program (EXROP).
EXROP gives undergraduate students from groups underrepresented in the sciences or from disadvantaged backgrounds a chance to work in some of the world's top research labs run by HHMI investigators and HHMI professors. Miller was one of 62 students selected this year to participate in EXROP, the largest group in the program's seven years.
“Jabari has enormous potential as a scientist, and yet he has never been exposed to the kinds of opportunities that are available,” says Barbara Baumstark, a biochemist at Georgia State and the HHMI program director who nominated Miller for EXROP. “Now he will be.”
Since 2003, EXROP has placed 359 students from 97 colleges and universities in the labs of 130 HHMI investigators and HHMI professors. The hope is that students who experience the excitement and intensity of a top research lab and see other students like them doing the same thing will be inspired to one day become academic scientists—and serve as examples for others.
“I've experienced the positive impact that highly talented faculty from diverse backgrounds can have on students in science departments,” says Peter J. Bruns, HHMI's vice president for grants and special programs. “We desperately need more professors like that, and EXROP is part of that effort.”
So far, 189 EXROP students have completed their undergraduate degrees. Of those, 93 percent are still in science: 38 percent are pursuing a Ph.D. or M.D./Ph.D., and 29 percent an M.D. The remaining students are working as research technicians or science teachers, or are studying for a master's degree.
EXROP's talent scouts, as Bruns calls them, are the directors of HHMI's undergraduate grants at colleges and universities across the country. They identify top students who could someday become academic leaders and who are ready for the challenge of working in an intense research environment, both academically and emotionally.
The program is popular among the HHMI lab hosts. Every year, more of these high-profile scientists volunteer to host students than are needed.
Photo: Paul Fetters