Laboratories of Diversity

Monday, June 8, 2015

$3 million grant from NIH for new Rush University program


By Mark Donahue

No one in her family ever had worked in a laboratory before Janet Zayas caught the research bug while pursuing her master’s degree.

Her studies included work with epigallocatechin-3-gallate, a phytochemical found in green tea that possesses the most potent antioxidant activity of the catechins (molecular compounds found in food and drinks such as chocolate and tea). EGCG, as it’s known, has been shown to inhibit tumor growth in certain types of cancer, and Zayas looked at its possible applications in treating and preventing pancreatic cancer.

“I realized what makes me happy about doing research is making some progress, or even the tiniest small difference in human health,” she says.

Born in Los Angeles, Zayas was raised in Mexico City, where she studied at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México and graduated as a biologist. She came back to the U.S. and completed her master’s work in biotechnology and chemical science at Roosevelt University in Chicago, receiving her degree in 2013.

This fall, she will enter the PhD in Integrated Biomedical Sciences program in Rush University’s Graduate College. Though she’s excited to take the next step toward her dream of becoming a researcher, Zayas knows it won’t be easy.

“I am the first from my family to get this far (in higher education),” she says. “It’s challenging because you want to pursue your dreams, and you may not always get support.”

As a Mexican-American in a health science doctoral program, Zayas is not alone in feeling alone. While certainly not all PhD candidates from under-represented minority backgrounds face hardships, the challenges many encounter can sometimes bar them from a promising career in science.

Those challenges can include financial hardship, lack of role models in their family or social circle, and a sense of isolation in their program, but they are as varied as the students themselves.

“Success in any field is often a reflection of the diverse ideas that we bring to the table,” says Lena Al-Harthi, PhD, professor and associate chair of Rush’s Department of Immunology and Microbiology. “[Students from underrepresented backgrounds] have often been left out, and with this omission, opportunities for innovation are compromised.”

Nationally, strides are being made to address the issue of diversity in biomedical research. And now Rush is playing a leading role.

In September of 2014, the National Institute of General Medical Sciences awarded Rush’s Graduate College a  nearly $3 million grant to launch its Initiative to Maximize Student Development this fall. The institute, called NIGMS for short, is one of the National Institutes of Health. Al-Harthi will serve as principle investigator and program director for Rush IMSD.

Zayas joins an inaugural class of three PhD candidates in this new effort, which will prepare them not only for intense study but also for a career in research afterward. That number will grow.

Skills for success

Sa’Rah McNeal will join Zayas this fall as she also pursues her PhD. McNeal recently earned a master’s in biotechnology from Rush and wants to continue her work in cancer research.

McNeal, who is black, says she’s looking for ways to improve her time management skills and to stay motivated as she takes on an increased workload.

“I don’t come from a family of scientists and doctors, so even in my undergraduate experience I didn’t always have the guidance that I would have liked,” she says.

While larger U.S. schools traditionally have won grants aimed at nurturing research diversity, Al-Harthi feels Rush offers a uniquely supportive environment for training — one with a smaller student-to-faculty ratio that allows for careful monitoring of student progress and intervention where need be.

Rush’s Initiative to Maximize Student Development will provide not only mentoring, but also professional development for these future scientists. Extra classroom training sessions will touch on areas of success, both inside and outside the lab. Students will learn how to choose a dissertation advisor, use research tools, write grants, create posters and give oral presentations. They also will train in time management, conflict resolution, the financial aspects of running a lab and job interviewing.

The students also will receive a stipend for two years and are eligible for funds to travel to national scientific conferences and meetings.

The program is open to U.S. citizens and resident aliens from underrepresented minority student backgrounds. It will run for five years and cover up to 27 students, and the IMSD grant is renewable at the end of that period. Al-Harthi hopes to see it expand and attract more students.

“Our environment at Rush should reflect the greater diversity of our nation and especially the diversity in Chicago,” she says, “and this program is a positive step in this direction.”

Strength to compete

Hadijat Makinde’s journey to her PhD is nearly over, and she’s had some time to reflect.

Originally from Nigeria, she came to the U.S. at age 19 with her mother and two sisters and was later joined by her brother. After earning her bachelor’s degree, she worked for two years in research and development for a food and medicine flavoring company before applying to Rush’s PhD in immunology/microbiology program, attracted by that department’s focus on HIV/AIDS.

Makinde’s research has centered on immune responses to sexually transmitted infections in the lower female genital tract. Later this summer she will defend her dissertation.

Though Rush’s new initiative is starting just as she’s leaving, Makinde is enthusiastic about it. She believes such programs go a long way toward helping future PhD students succeed in the current economy, where competition is high for research positions.

Today, Makinde is applying for postdoctoral jobs in labs across the country. One day she wants to run her own laboratory. As does Janet Zayas. Sa’Rah McNeal hopes to add an “MD” to her title and become a clinician researcher.

Makinde thinks the new students will get a great start. “They’re going to give the incoming students a boost that I didn’t have,” she says.