This fall, the MARC U-STAR (Maximizing Access to Research Careers Undergraduate Student Training in Academic Research) Fellowship program kicked off with its first four fellows.
The National Institutes of Health–funded program is working to broaden the pipeline of students from underrepresented or economically disadvantaged backgrounds into STEM, focusing on students in the biomedical and behavioral research fields.
“We are still lagging far behind with racial diversity within these disciplines,” says Dr. Lee Phillips, director of UNCG’s Undergraduate Research, Scholarship, and Creativity Office and co-principal investigator. “The MARC U-STAR fellows program is specifically designed to address that.”
Part of the problem is that minorities face institutional barriers when it comes to access to undergraduate research, mentoring, and navigating the system.
“Nationwide, we have a problem in terms of the kinds of scientists that are pursuing careers in STEM,” says Professor Matina Kalcounis-Rüppell, a co-principal investigator and head of the Department of Biology. “They tend not to be people of color or women.”
MARC U-STAR works to position its students for careers in science by providing fellows with financial support, undergraduate research experiences, and meaningful partnerships with mentors who can help them transition to graduate school or take the next step as a developing scientist.
“We know from the literature that if a student engages in undergraduate research, the likelihood of being successful in whatever professional track they are on is higher,” Kalcounis-Rüppell says.
Students, who enter the program as rising juniors, receive a two-year stipend with in-state tuition. The fellowships include faculty mentoring, specialized courses and workshops, funding for research projects and travel, opportunities to publish and present work, and a summer research experience at another university.
“One of the beautiful things about MARC U-STAR is that it doesn’t end with UNCG. The summer before their senior year, students engage in research but on a different campus,” says lead principal investigator Dr. Dan Herr, nanoscience department chair and professor in the Joint School of Nanoscience and Nanoengineering (JSNN). “They see that the transition isn’t so scary.”
The MARC U-STAR project was originally conceived by Dr. Lee Beverly, a professor in the Department of Nutrition. When Herr took the lead, he and co-principal investigator Dr. Joseph L. Graves Jr., associate dean for research and professor of nanoengineering at the JSNN, were particularly excited by the opportunity to give undergraduates unique exposure to the cutting-edge research conducted at the Joint School. From nutrition to nanoscience to biology and beyond, the interdisciplinary program offers research experiences and mentors from departments across campus.
“We wanted to catalyze and sustain interest in STEM but also transform the culture on campus to be more diversity-focused as well as convergence-focused,” Herr says.
One of the hallmarks of MARC U-STAR is its emphasis on not only increasing diversity among students but also increasing awareness among faculty.
“Science is no different from any other profession in U.S. society. Institutional racism is real, it operates at every level from high school to professional science,” Graves explains. The program includes training for faculty members on how institutional racism manifests in STEM careers.
The principal investigators are aiming for both immediate and long-term impact.
As a minority-serving institution, says Kalcounis-Rüppell, UNCG doesn’t yet have the faculty to reflect the student body. “Recruitment into the faculty pipeline to make sure students have role models they can connect with and identify with and interact with comfortably is key.”
“I hope we can begin to change the face of researchers and academic professionals in these disciplines to be more parallel to society, more in line with societal demographics, so that we can break down some of the barriers that have existed for millennia,” says Phillips.
The MARC U-STAR project is led by Professor of Nanoscience and Department Chair Daniel Herr; NC A&T State Professor of Nanoengineering and Associate Dean for Research Joseph L. Graves Jr.; Professor of Biology and Department Head Matina Kalcounis-Rüppell; and Undergraduate Research, Scholarship, and Creativity Office Director Lee Phillips.