It’s no secret that a lack of diversity in the STEM fields affects the focus and value of scientific research—an ongoing issue for communities of color, women, disabled persons, and individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds. In 2019, these underrepresented populations were awarded only 11.7% of science and engineering research doctorates, even though they make up about a third of the population and labor force. This exclusion from the sciences has led to disparities in education, transportation, data collection and management, and healthcare.
These are concerns the Fort Lewis College Undergraduate Research Training Initiative for Student Enhancement, or FLC U-RISE, is trying to solve in biomedical research.
In 2021, FLC received a U-RISE grant funded by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, a division of the National Institutes of Health. It was a significant step for FLC, an institution where over half of the student body identifies as people of color, and a third qualify for Pell grants. The program is overseen by Interim Dean and Professor of Biology Steven Fenster. It prepares underrepresented students who want to pursue careers in biomedical research.
“We give them intense mentoring in a research-based experience,” Fenster said. “They apply in their second year, and then they can choose between 12 and 15 faculty mentors to work with on a research project. They spend the following summer on campus working 40 hours a week with a faculty mentor on their research.”
U-RISE students have most, if not all, of their tuition covered. Program participants also receive a stipend that allows them to focus on obtaining their degree and completing their undergraduate research. The program is not restricted to the Chemistry and Biochemistry Department. FLC students in the Engineering, Public Health, Exercise Science, and Psychology programs can also apply.
During the summer following their junior year, U-RISE scholars can intern at institutions like Harvard University or University of California, Berkeley.
Students also participate in financial literacy workshops, attend national conferences, and receive peer education training. So far, there have been nine program participants, including six students currently enrolled at FLC.
One of those students, Jycole Bush, a senior studying Cellular & Molecular Biology, believes the program will benefit her future career.
“I think the mentoring from faculty has been extremely helpful,” Bush said. “They want us to do well and provide help whenever needed. It’s pushed me to do better.”
After watching a family member struggle with cancer years ago, Bush, a citizen of the Oneida Indian Nation and the Oglala Sioux Tribe, became interested in cancer research.
“It was tough to watch, and I couldn’t do anything about it,” Bush recalled. “And seeing the treatments they have now and how toxic they are to the body, I felt like I have to contribute in some way.”
"They want us to do well and provide help whenever needed. It’s pushed me to do better."
Bush is working with her mentor Shere Byrd, professor of Biology, to research natural therapeutics for a cancer cell line called Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia. Specifically, she’s looking into how specific over-the-counter bioflavonoids, or plant metabolites, may be able to treat forms of leukemia. Bush’s work in this area is crucial, given that Indigenous people are far more likely to develop cancers when compared to non-Hispanic white populations.
Bush will graduate this May and is applying to graduate programs across the country. Her top choice is the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, where she completed her U-RISE summer internship last year.
With U-RISE’s placement record, her graduate studies aspirations seem highly likely. Most FLC U-RISE program graduates have received placements in top graduate programs, including Jycole’s brother Gerald Bush (Cellular & Molecular Biology, ‘22), who is now a neuroscience doctoral candidate at the University of Miami.
“Most of our former students are in graduate school right now,” Fenster said. “It has a high impact on a small number of students.”
Fenster explained the importance of increasing representation in STEM fields through programs like U-RISE.
“We are seeing an increase in doctorates from underrepresented populations, but it’s not enough,” Fenster said. “The U-RISE program is vital because it’s building a pipeline for students who might face barriers or lack the same kind of support or role models as their peers. It’s essential, too, because once students start seeing people like them working in their fields of interest—that’s inspiring.”