Among the most vexing challenges facing scientists today is devising effective strategies to significantly increase diversity in the research community. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has taken a first step toward that goal with its Carolina Covenant Scholars Program, which is awarded to students from low-income families. Now, an extension of that program will encourage some of those students to pursue biomedical research.
The HHMI Undergraduate Research for Future Scientists and Clinicians Program will help 12 Carolina Covenant Scholars undertake original research in biology or chemistry each year, as part of a broader science education initiative supported by HHMI.
Most summer undergraduate research opportunities last for a single season, but participants in the UNC program will continue their work the following summer. Project director Patricia Pukkila says extending research beyond a single summer heightens students' dedication and performance. "What students produce in that second summer is mind-boggling," she says. "They're presenting at prestigious meetings, they're winning scholarships, and they're coauthoring publications in top journals." The result is improved confidence and, often, a commitment to a career in science, she says.
Students will work alongside faculty and graduate-student mentors, who provide research support and career guidance. In their second year of the program, students will be expected to help and advise first-year students. The goal is to build a support system that will ensure students have every opportunity to succeed. "When we can provide empowerment, information, and the means to pursue science, students can begin to imagine themselves in science careers," says Pukkila. "They realize the benefits. And that is incredibly invigorating."
Giving skilled students from underrepresented communities the tools and support they need to develop careers in science requires concerted efforts—but the payoff will be a more diverse community of scientists bringing new approaches to modern research problems and questions.