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Grant to Help Underrepresented Students in Research Careers

November 5, 2013

A dozen UC Merced undergraduates will gain an edge in their journeys toward careers in biomedical and behavioral research, courtesy of five years' funding from the National Institutes of Health.

The campus recently received a Minority Access to Research Careers (MARC) grant from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences that will give the students experience in conducting research, presenting, writing and networking. The funding, $171,000 per year, is renewable, so there's a good chance more students will be helped.

The grant is intended to increase the number of highly trained underrepresented biomedical and behavioral scientists in leadership positions. In the United States, African-Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans are some of the most underrepresented groups in biomedical and behavioral research, and with UC Merced's great diversity, applying for this grant made a lot of sense, said Professor Rudy Ortiz, who applied for the funding.

"Graduate schools want MARC students because they come well-trained and motivated," Ortiz said. "They can hit the ground running and become exceptional graduate students."

Four students — two juniors and two seniors — were accepted last spring to be in the first cohort.

The studentsare:

  • Julio Flores, a senior who is working with Professor Masashi Kitazawa
  • Adriana Lopez, a senior who is working with Ortiz
  • Debby Lee, a junior who is working with Ortiz
  • Emmanuel Villanueva, a junior who is working with Professor Jitske Tiemensma

The program begins accepting applications in February for the two slots in the second cohort, said Jesus Cisneros, director for Undergraduate Research Programs with UC Merced’s Office of Undergraduate Education.

Students interested in applying to the program should focus on their fundamental knowledge in math and chemistry and make sure they have good writing skills, Cisneros said. Also, they must want to have careers in creating new knowledge.

"We're not trying to train physicians," he said. "We want them to be doing research."

Villanueva, a psychology major from Fresno, is that type of student. He's in the midst of conducting a literature review on the effects of emotions on the immune system, called psychoneuroimmunology.

"It's not just folk knowledge. It's true. The idea that we have control, to a certain degree, over our health is powerful," Villanueva said.

He's hoping to publish the article before he graduates and use it to help with graduate-school applications.

Ortiz, who received similar support from NIH when he was an undergraduate student at Texas A&M, said diversity is improving in graduate schools, but there's a marked drop when those students accept postdoctoral appointments — which are crucial when looking for full-time research positions.

By building early on a strong interest in research, Ortiz said universities, including UC Merced, can play a critical role in creating a diverse biomedical and behavioral research workforce.