The University of Alabama's new grant will create a semester-long introductory seminar that will rotate among three campuses.

University of Alabama (UA) biology professor Martha Powell feels a special call to help students from minority groups get into science, because of the legacy of segregation in the state and the persistent barriers that remain in Alabama and nationwide. She wants to make it easier for students to leap those barriers.

Powell is encouraging students of all backgrounds to be engaged in—and serious about—scientific research. The university is collaborating with two other Tuscaloosa institutions, Stillman College, a historically black liberal arts school, and Shelton State Community College, to bring diverse groups of students together to do bioscience research in a supportive environment. “A lot of people have gone over or around the barriers, and if they’ve gone over, it’s because someone has helped them,” she says. “We want to offer that help.”

With two prior HHMI grants, the university created the Hughes Undergraduate Researcher Program, which brings freshmen and sophomores from all three schools to UA to do hands-on research for two years. Of the 141 students who participated during the last 10 years, 98 percent chose careers related to science and technology, including 28 percent who went to medical school, 18 percent who entered doctoral programs, and 12 percent who became teachers.

The new grant will create a semester-long introductory seminar to the research program that will rotate among the three campuses, a feature that is critical to the program’s success, Powell says. Shelton students, many the first in their family to go to college, will get to know Stillman and UA students and professors and may consider pursuing a Ph.D. When white UA students walk onto the Stillman campus, they will experience—possibly for the first time—what it feels like to be a minority.

The seminar itself will prepare students by helping them think broadly about science, Powell says. Students will learn about important research discoveries: the scientists behind them, what barriers they faced, and the work’s societal impact. Participants will also visit campus major research centers where work such as microscopy and genome sequencing takes place. “Students are very aware of the end products of research but aren’t thinking about the process it took to get to that point. . . . We’re emphasizing how science builds upon itself and that there’s an enormous degree of serendipity and creativity in discovery.”

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Jim Keeley 301.215.8858