VCU Center on Health Disparities’ Summer Research Training Programs Spark Excitement About Careers in the Health Sciences

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Tenchee Lama Tamang, 21, admits to having fallen in love with research. The Virginia Commonwealth University rising senior is studying biology and has her sights set on one day translating her lab work into something that can benefit people with asthma and allergies.

But first, she’s learning her way around the lab bench, getting a taste of the researcher’s life, and applying the knowledge she’s been learning in the classroom, to a real-life research setting.

During the past 10-weeks, Tamang has been participating in the VCU Minority Access to Research Careers program, or MARC, one of six summer research training programs offered through the VCU Center on Health Disparities, which are designed to bring more underrepresented minorities into the biomedical sciences.

“I have had the opportunity to meet many accomplished scientists and learn about their endless work and contributions to various areas of research, which I find very motivating personally. This program has also allowed me to attend and present in local and national conferences, which has helped boost my confidence and interest in research,” said Tamang, who was a 2010 participant of the VCU Short Term Education Program for Underrepresented Persons, or STEP-UP.

Last summer marked Tamang’s first introduction to research. STEP-UP provides undergraduate students from racial and ethnic minorities or disadvantaged backgrounds an opportunity to investigate areas such as diabetes, endocrinology, metabolism, nutrition and more, and is supported by the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.

“At the end of the STEP-UP summer program I wanted to keep on researching and continue to be a part of the lab and research environment,” said Tamang. After conveying her interest to Mary Bramley, program coordinator for the research training programs at the VCU Center on Health Disparities, Tamang was introduced to the MARC program.

Researchers in training
For the past five years, programs offered through VCU Center on Health Disparities including STEP-UP , HERO , IMSD , MARC , PREP, IRACDA, and the NHLBI Summer for Sickle Cell Science Program  – have brought area high schoolers, and undergraduates, masters, doctoral and post-doctoral students from across the country to the campuses of VCU to participate in hands-on learning and the opportunity to work alongside some of the institution’s leading experts and researchers. The VCU Center on Health Disparities also partners with Elizabeth City State University to train additional students through the E-SPARE program.

This year, nearly 60 faculty mentors from both of VCU’s campuses and at other institutions across the country dedicated their time and expertise to helping inspire the next round of young investigators.

This summer, Tamang worked in the lab of John Ryan, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Biology, examining mechanisms and interactions of mast cells, which are known to play a central role in asthma and allergy.

“Dr. Ryan was always there to guide and advise, and was also willing to go out of his way if necessary to help me and make things work for me … Not only is he a very motivated scientist, but he is also a great mentor,” said Tamang.

Tamang’s gratitude extends beyond Ryan and to the each member of his lab who offered the young researcher plenty of assistance and encouragement. She said with each day, she took away a new lesson, whether related to science or just everyday life.

“One of the important lessons that I have learned from Dr. Ryan is to always be optimistic and to keep trying harder every day, no matter how difficult the path seems,” said Tamang.

“This experience has made me realize that so many questions are unanswered and we are so limited on our knowledge when it comes to diagnosis of any type of disease. This experience has strengthened and motivated me to commit myself to the research field,” she explained.

This summer, in addition to Tamang, Ryan mentored Abenezer Mulugeta, a biology major from the College of William and Mary who participated in the HERO program. Mulugeta also examined mast cells, but his work was a separate research project from Tamang’s.

Ryan, who serves as the principal investigator of the MARC grant and co-principal investigator of the IMSD grant, said that he and his science colleagues believe it is important to engage people who might not have the means to get involved in research through the programs offered through the VCU Center on Health Disparities. MARC and IMSD are supported through grants from the National Institutes of Health.

“It is so important to involve undergraduates in research projects. Obviously students who major in one of the sciences have an interest in science, but very few know what it really means to actually do science. They picture it as isolating or even monotonous. Instead, most students who complete a research project with a well-matched mentor will tell you they found it creative, engaging, fun - even exciting,” said Ryan.

“It opens you to ways of thinking about and testing your own ideas of how things work, making you see the world differently. Students who complete a research project are savvy, experienced and more confident in interviews for graduate and professional school,” he said.

Celebrating hard work
Last week, Tamang, Mulugeta and the other 40 participants of the on-campus summer research training programs had an opportunity to share the results of their dedication and hard work during a three-day research symposium. This week, the five on-campus STEP-UP students joined 125 other participants at the national STEP-UP symposium at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md.

Student interests ranged from researching the basic mechanisms behind a host of diseases to gaining a better understanding of how the public can be educated about health issues.

“To quote from our website, the VCU Center on Health Disparities is committed to the elimination of disparities in health outcomes and the improvement of health care. Critical to this mission is diversification of the workforce in biomedical research. The U.S. population is becoming more and more diverse. That diversity should be reflected in the researchers who are tackling the most fundamental issues in our society,” said Suzanne Barbour, Ph.D., professor of biochemistry and director for the research training programs offered through the Center on Health Disparities.

“Our trainees are the future leaders who will determine which clinical trials are conducted, which research grants are funded, and which drugs are developed. Although we recognize that not all of our trainees will continue in research and pursue it as a career, we hope these programs will help our students to select the most appropriate career path. Hopefully, some will stay in research and through their future efforts will reduce the burden of health disparities in our country,” said Barbour.

For a list of the 2010-2011 research trainees, click here .