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VCU GREAT to provide students from underrepresented backgrounds with research training, opportunities

The program aims to diversify the field of behavioral research and enhance undergraduate student success.

VCU Guided Research Experiences & Applied Training, or VCU GREAT, grew out of Spit for Science, a...
VCU Guided Research Experiences & Applied Training, or VCU GREAT, grew out of Spit for Science, an ongoing universitywide research project at VCU that creates unique, cross-disciplinary opportunities for students to work with leading researchers in substance use and emotional health. (Courtesy photo)

A newly established program at Virginia Commonwealth University will provide undergraduate students from underrepresented backgrounds with the opportunity to gain research skills training, work in campus research labs and receive mentorship from VCU faculty researchers.

The program, VCU Guided Research Experiences & Applied Training, or VCU GREAT, is funded by a recently awarded $486,000 grant from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism that has a goal of not only training young researchers but also to diversify the pipeline of scientists working in the fields of substance use and genetics research.

“We know there is a lack of diversity among scientists engaged in biomedical and behavioral research,” said Danielle M. Dick, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Psychology in the College of Humanities and Sciences and the Department of Human and Molecular Genetics in the School of Medicine. “This grant focuses on introducing students from a diversity of backgrounds to the research process, with the long-term goal of creating a more diverse scientific workforce.”

The program grew out of Spit for Science, an ongoing universitywide project at VCU that creates unique, cross-disciplinary opportunities for students to work with leading researchers in substance use and emotional health, along with other research opportunities offered through the College Behavioral and Emotional Health Institute, in partnership with the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program.

As part of VCU GREAT, roughly 10 students each summer will participate in an eight-week research experience — consisting of structured training and individual mentorship — designed to provide young researchers with foundational research skills, experiential learning and responsible conduct of research training.

“We want to use Spit for Science as a means to engage undergraduates in the importance of research,” said Dick, director of Spit for Science and the College Behavioral and Emotional Health Institute, or COBE. “And to that end, with VCU being such a diverse university, another real opportunity that we have here is to increase representation of historically underrepresented groups in the sciences.”

Participants in VCU GREAT will spend one week with the Spit for Science research team in a summer “boot camp” followed by seven weeks of supervised research in the lab of a VCU Spit for Science faculty collaborator.

“The idea is that over those eight weeks the students will gain research skills and, with our help, propel themselves into other research experiences with the eventual goal of entering academia and increasing diversity,” said Amy Adkins, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology and director of undergraduate research at COBE.

Applications to take part in VCU GREAT will open in December and run through early March. It is aimed at students from disadvantaged backgrounds, students with disabilities, and students who are of underrepresented ethnicities, including blacks or African-Americans, Hispanics or Latinos, American Indians or Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders.

Following the eight-week experience, participants will continue to have access to monthly professional and career development meetings, networking opportunities and mentorship.

Herb Hill, director of undergraduate research opportunities in the Office of Academic Affairs, said the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program will contribute to VCU GREAT by expanding on what it already provides for all undergraduates who are interested in engaging with research experience at VCU: access and support for student/mentor collaboration.

“With VCU GREAT, we have the opportunity to recruit and train undergraduates who are underrepresented in the behavioral sciences and assist them toward careers in science and research,” he said. “Along the way we will work to support them in disseminating their research via publications and conference presentations, identifying potential graduate programs, and generally building a network of support that the GREAT students can rely upon.”

VCU GREAT is an extension of a previous Spit for Science research course taught by Adkins. It builds on the previous course by adding mentorship from researchers working with the Spit for Science registry, which includes de-identified genotypic data (DNA extracted from spit) and other health information (from questionnaires) voluntarily provided by VCU students.

More than 12,300 VCU students have participated in the Spit for Science registry, with roughly 70 percent of incoming freshmen participating in years that data has been collected.

“It all goes into a huge database that is being used by researchers across the campus to understand risk and protective factors related to behavioral and emotional health and well-being,” Dick said. “And then the COBE Institute focuses on how can we translate that research to feedback and benefit our students and our broader university and community. So this grant is one piece of that mission that is specifically related to engaging undergraduates in research.”

More than 75 faculty from 27 departments across VCU, along with more than 65 additional trainees — graduate or post-doctoral researchers — work with Spit for Science data. A number of these faculty members will serve as mentors through VCU GREAT. More than 250 undergraduates have participated in research opportunities associated with Spit for Science.

“We have tremendous faculty expertise at VCU in behavioral and emotional health — everything from faculty who work on genetics and substance use, like our group, to faculty who work on mindfulness, sleep, depression and anxiety, parent-child relationships, romantic relationships, and how all of these factors ultimately influence college outcomes,” Dick said. “I could go on and on about the amazing work that is ongoing.”

Included among the VCU GREAT faculty mentors are:

Ananda Amstadter, Ph.D., associate professor in the Virginia Institute for Psychiatric and Behavioral Genetics

Bethany Coston, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies

Chelsea Derlan, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Psychology

Mignonne Guy, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of African American Studies

Wendy Kliewer, professor in the Department of Psychology

Joshua Langberg, associate professor in the Department of Psychology

Elizabeth Prom-Wormley, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Family Medicine and Population Health in the School of Medicine

Jessica Salvatore, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Psychology

Jasmin Vassileva, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry

Scott Vrana, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Psychology