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Jesse Hall and MU columns

PREP-ing for the Future

Post-baccalaureate program aims to prepare more minority students for graduate school
December 2012

Dan Landayan never considered a career in neuroscience research until very late in his undergraduate career. By his senior year, however, it was too late to get the research experience he needed to get into the graduate school of his choice.

“I asked the admissions committee if there was any hope for me,” Landayan recalls. “I was told that research experience is number one. Without it, my graduate application was not even going to be looked at. That is just the reality of it.”

His hopes of graduate school seemed bleak. Then he stumbled on a program aimed specifically for students like him -- the Post-baccalaureate Research Education Program, or PREP for short. Funded by the National Institutes of Health, PREP endeavors to increase the diversity of students entering graduate school in the biomedical sciences by providing research training to enhance students’ competitiveness.

Landayan applied to PREP at the University of Missouri (MU) and was accepted in 2011. He is currently completing a second year as a PREP scholar in a neurobiology lab in the Christopher S. Bond Life Sciences Center. With two years of intensive research experience under his belt, Landayan is confident about his opportunities.

According to Professor Chris Hardin, who co-directs the program at MU, Landayan is representative of the type of student most likely to excel in PREP. “PREP is for students with very high potential who are very close to the credentials they need to pursue graduate studies,” says Hardin. “PREP allows these students to enhance their academic portfolio and their laboratory expertise and to give them a little more time to scientifically mature such that by the time they apply to a Ph.D. program they are highly competitive.”

MU PREP scholars are paired with one of thirty faculty members who serve as research mentors. Faculty mentors represent departments across campus but work in four broad biomedical areas: genetic regulatory mechanisms in development, molecular and biophysical aspects of cardiovascular function and adaptation, microbial pathogenesis, and neurobiology and behavior.

At the heart of PREP is the hands-on research experience. Scholars are expected to be fully involved in all phases of a faculty-mentored research project, from hypothesis development to communication of results. Scholars work with their faculty mentors to select a project and to refine their hypothesis and experimental design.

Seeing a project all the way through is one reason Simone Temporal chose to do two years as an MU PREP scholar after receiving her bachelor’s degree from SUNY-Stony Brook.

“I did undergraduate research, but it was disjointed. It was always DNA constructs, and I never really got an idea of an overall project and never saw any of my constructs go through the actual experiment, data, data analysis, and then conclusions from whatever results we got. That’s what I was craving,” recalls Temporal.

After two years of PREP, she walked away with more than the research experience she desired. She also came away with refined ideas on the graduate school experience.
“The PREP program gives you the opportunity to hone in on what you want and need from a mentor, lab and graduate program before you’re even in grad school,” says Temporal, who will complete her doctorate in neuroscience at MU this year.

Hardin emphasizes that PREP is not “enhanced undergraduate research” but a total immersion experience in a graduate environment. “Accepted scholars are expected to take graduate courses, interact with graduate students, participate in weekly journal clubs and lab meetings, attend scientific conferences and seminars, and present their research findings.”

The goal, Hardin stresses, is not only to be admitted into a competitive graduate program but to succeed in that environment.

And by all measures, succeed they do. Of the twenty scholars who have completed MU PREP since 2003, sixteen have been accepted into competitive doctoral programs in a biomedical field, one into medical school, and one into a master’s of public health program. Two have since completed their degrees and are working in a biomedical field. One former PREP Scholar, Willie Agee, currently heads the virology section at Tripler Army Medical Center in Honolulu, Hawaii.

These successes are what continue to motivate associate professor John David, who has been the driving force behind MU PREP since its inception in 2002. “It’s satisfying to see the scholars go out and be successful.”

Michael Garcia, an associate professor of biological sciences and an investigator in the Bond Life Sciences Center, reiterates that the rewards of the program are not limited to the scholars. Garcia has been mentoring PREP scholars in his lab for four years. He says that PREP scholars provide more than just an extra pair of hands in the lab -- they bring fresh perspective.

“Everybody has a different perspective, and part of our perspective is who we are and where we come from,” Garcia says. “The more eyes you get in your lab and the more ways of thinking you get, the better off science is. Diversity enriches science as a discipline as well as the day-to-day aspects of it.”

While enhancing science through diversity is the end game, Garcia points out that the benefits extend well beyond the walls of science.

“Diversity broadens my horizons and makes me a better scientist and, as a consequence, a better person,” says Garcia.

Written by: Melody Kroll