Student in a lab coat uses a pipette.
Biomedical engineering student Karah Moore has been a member of the lab of Rebecca Heise, Ph.D., for the past three years, researching cellular activity in diseased lungs. (Kevin Morley, Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

VCU awarded $3 million from the NIH to continue research training of students underrepresented in the sciences

Two renewed grants, which support undergraduate and graduate students in pursuing biomedical and behavioral research, highlight VCU’s national standing.

Share this story

Since Karah Moore’s first year at Virginia Commonwealth University, the biomedical engineering major has been fascinated by biomaterials, especially artificial organs. Beginning in the summer after her freshman year, she joined the lab of Rebecca Heise, Ph.D., an associate professor at the College of Engineering’s Department of Biomedical Engineering who studies pulmonary mechanotransduction – specifically, lung injury and pulmonary regenerative medicine.

In this research lab, Moore investigates how cells sense and respond to mechanical forces in healthy and diseased lungs, and she uses that information to find more effective treatments for pulmonary disease, lung cancer and lung regeneration. Her experience has been transformative.

“I've always been solution-oriented, and research is how we can find those solutions. I also really enjoy the process of answering complex questions by bringing together different pieces of evidence. It's like finishing a puzzle – there's just something really satisfying about finally figuring something out that you've been working on for a while,” said Moore, who is now a senior. “Being a part of this lab has been a good steppingstone, especially because I want to go into grad school.”

Moore has been working in Heise’s lab for the past three years with help from a National Institutes of Health grant that was renewed this summer to support students who aspire to careers in research. The MARC grant – Maximizing Access to Research Careers – is an undergraduate biomedical and behavioral research training grant, and it has provided Moore with a stipend for her research, funds to attend conferences, access to a lab skills boot camp, mentoring, career development counseling, tuition assistance and a network of like-minded peers.

As a result of this support, formerly through VCU’s Initiative for Maximizing Student Development undergraduate scholars program, Moore has attended numerous conferences around the country to network in her field and present her work. She is also co-author of a paper that will be published by her lab later this year.

All of these experiences are helping Moore pave a path toward pursuing a doctoral degree.

A legacy continues

Established at VCU in 2009, the IMSD program has supported research training for students from groups historically underrepresented in biomedical research. The highly competitive NIH grant has been awarded to fewer than 150 institutions since 1986. VCU is one of only two in Virginia to offer the program and one of only a handful across the country to train both undergraduate and graduate students.

The IMSD undergraduate program recently received $1.7 million from the NIH to transition to a MARC program for the next five years. MARC continues the work of IMSD but will provide scholars with more financial assistance for research, professional growth and tuition.

The IMSD Ph.D. program was also renewed with $1.2 million in funding this spring. Both grants are facilitated through the VCU Center for Health Disparities.

The undergraduate program has trained 119 students, 40 of whom have gone on to pursue doctoral degrees and 22 who pursued master’s programs. The first VCU undergraduate student trained through IMSD received their Ph.D. in August 2019. Since then, 12 more IMSD scholars have earned their doctoral degrees. All are pursuing further training, with many taking industrial postdoctoral positions. For the IMSD Ph.D. program, 28 students have been supported, and 16 have earned Ph.D.s, while eight students are still in training.

Man in a lab coat studies a container.
Bryan McKiver is a doctoral student in the School of Medicine. His work focuses on understanding biomarkers for inflammatory and neuropathic pain in cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy. (Photo by Doug Buerlein)

Faculty leadership and mentorship

Sarah Golding, Ph.D., an associate biology professor in VCU’s College of Humanities and Sciences and director of undergraduate research, has led the MARC program (and formerly the IMSD undergraduate program) since 2011. She said the cross-institutional partnership nature of the grant helps introduce students to broader research opportunities.

“By having some of us positioned on both campuses, we've been able to connect the dots and make relationships with mentors,” Golding said. “I don't think that it just influences the research of the students funded by our program. Opening that kind of communication and gateway between the two campuses allows for many more students to have access to cutting-edge research than they would have if we were siloed on two different campuses.”

On the MCV Campus, MARC co-director Carlos Escalante, Ph.D., has served as a mentor for students in the program, connecting them to professors for research opportunities and helping them through issues they may encounter when joining a lab.

“I wanted to get undergraduate students more involved because I realized from talking to students that sometimes they didn't know how to approach PIs [principal investigators] and how to start doing research, often asking: ‘Is it OK if I email the professor?’” said Escalante, an associate professor and assistant graduate program director in the VCU School of Medicine’s Department of Physiology and Biophysics.

Through the IMSD Ph.D. program, students develop leadership skills to prepare them for a career in research.

“You get to see students take command of a research project and learn how to be a leader. All Ph.D.s have to be leaders because they're going to be directing other people in their research,” said Joyce A. Lloyd, Ph.D., a professor in the School of Medicine’s Department of Human and Molecular Genetics and associate dean of the VCU Graduate School. “It's rewarding to see the students evolve from the first day through when they get their Ph.D., and they're ready to be the boss.”

Hamid Akbarali, Ph.D., a professor in the School of Medicine’s Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology, leads the IMSD Ph.D. program, which is co-directed by Lloyd and Mychal Smith, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the College of Humanities and Sciences’ Department of Chemistry.

Akbarali said the program provides a community and support system, propelling underrepresented students in science and positioning them to be role models.

“It gives the students an opportunity to build up a sense of belonging. We want vast and different questions in the biomedical area. We want them to be answered by people who look like and who are the population that we want to train,” Akbarali said. “That is one of the successes of the IMSD program – that we have increased the number of underrepresented students within the program over the years and helped get them into the Ph.D. programs.”

Three men in lab coats examine markings on a transparent sheet.
Through two newly renewed grants, VCU supports research training for students from groups historically underrepresented in the biomedical field, including doctoral student Bryan McKiver (right) pictured with his mentors, M. Imad Damaj, Ph.D., (center) and Devanand Sarkar, Ph.D., (left). (Photo by Doug Buerlein)

Crucial funding

Without the MARC funding, Moore says she would never have been able to put in the long hours required to do research in a lab. She is also a student-athlete on the track and field team, and balancing that with a job, research and her coursework is even more challenging.

“I knew I wasn't going to have time to go into the lab if I wasn't getting paid. I would have to go and get a job outside of research,” Moore said. “The grant renewal was the best news I got this year.”

As she begins her last undergraduate year, she knows that her research experience could facilitate a postbaccalaureate opportunity, possibly in Europe for an international experience, before she applies to a doctoral program. She feels prepared because of her MARC-funded undergraduate research experience at VCU.

In the School of Medicine's Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology, Bryan McKiver, a doctoral student in the lab of M. Imad Damaj, Ph.D., is a recipient of the IMSD Ph.D. training grant. He, too, said the support has had a major impact on his ability to pursue his professional aspirations.

McKiver’s research focuses on pain and analgesics, drugs that reduce pain sensation. He studies biomarkers for inflammation and how, by targeting those biomarkers, researchers can prevent or reverse the development of pain in different animal models, while also enhancing the effects of different types of analgesics such as opioids.

“What we found is that, by targeting this molecule, we can actually prevent the development of inflammatory pain and various types of neuropathic pain in the models that we're using,” McKiver said.

He graduated from VCU in 2015 with a bachelor’s degree in biology and minor in chemistry, then earned his master’s degree in human genetics from the School of Medicine in 2018. He considers himself a cancer researcher who started his research journey by volunteering in labs in the VCU Massey Comprehensive Cancer Center as an undergraduate.

“I took several courses focused specifically on cancer biology because I knew that that's what I was really interested in. I got a master's doing studies focused on liver cancer,” McKiver said.

His accomplishments, made possible by the IMSD grant, have influenced his research career.

“There's still a big divide in terms of specific groups of people of color in their involvement and progression, not only higher education but specifically in STEM fields. There's still work that needs to be done to make sure that there is equal and equitable representation of underrepresented minorities in science,” McKiver said. “This grant provides funding resources to get that initial experience because it was very difficult for me as an undergrad to go through that. Similarly, the graduate program provides funding to help cover tuition, research costs and traveling.”

He said the grant helps both the growing community of students as well as the established community of researchers at VCU, creating a bond of support.

“You're less likely to find people who have similar cultural customs or sociocultural experiences on a day-to-day basis in these fields, especially in higher education,” McKiver said. “So having a collective of individuals who are experiencing it – some at the same time and in the same way as you, and some more advanced – it really allows you to draw from experiences from different people and gain that real support to keep and maintain a sufficient group of underrepresented minorities within this field itself and hopefully help it to expand.”

McKiver continues to mentor younger students in the program. And as he finishes his doctoral studies at VCU and finalizes plans for a postdoctoral research fellowship, he feels confident forging ahead in his field.