Underrepresented students investigate a life in biomedicine with UAB researchers

For a second summer, Maria Onatunde traveled to UAB from Florida to participate in UAB's PARAdiGM program, which offers in-depth research experience for undergraduates from disadvantaged and minority backgrounds.

news zipperly owatundeFor more than a year, Morgan Zipperly (left), a UAB M.D./Ph.D. student, has helped mentor undergraduate Maria Onatunde (right) as part of the Preparation for Graduate and Medical Education program. For a second summer, Maria Onatunde has come to UAB as a Preparation for Graduate and Medical Education (PARAdiGM) student, in the UAB School of Medicine.

The University of Central Florida student was investigating a potential career path of a combined M.D./Ph.D. degree two years ago and saw that UAB offered the PARAdiGM summer research program for outstanding undergraduates from disadvantaged and underrepresented minority backgrounds.

With this opportunity to explore a potential future career as a physician-scientist, Onatunde spent her first summer working with David Brown, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Physical Therapy, UAB School of Health Professions. Brown’s Locomotor Control and Rehabilitation Robotics Laboratory, better known as the LocoLab, studies neuromusculoskeletal control during active movement in people who are recovering from a stroke.

“I was assigned three mentors while in Birmingham,” she wrote in the UAB PARAdiGM blog of her first summer. “A clinical mentor — who happened to be a physician-scientist — a research mentor and a Medical Science Training Program mentor. Any question I had about school, the lifestyle during school and the opportunities it would open for me was answered while in Birmingham. I learned so much about what I want to do, what I do not want to do and how to better prepare myself for the future.”

For this summer’s research at UAB, Onatunde worked in the lab of her clinical mentor from the previous summer, Talene Yacoubian, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor of neurology. Onatunde used short hairpin RNA to knock down the gene for 14-3-3-theta, a protein that is thought to play a role in Parkinson’s disease. Onatunde was also able to shadow Yacoubian, a movement disorders neurologist, in the clinic.

The UAB PARAdiGM Program

With a focus on students from diverse and underrepresented minority backgrounds, PARAdiGM provides undergraduates with an understanding of, and appreciation for, the biomedical research process. The goal is for students to be exposed to the passion and excitement of careers as physician-scientists, where they can help patients and investigate their diseases. The PARAdiGM participants:

  • Participate in the program for two summers.
  • Work in the lab of a funded biomedical researcher.
  • Learn about careers at academic medical centers by shadowing clinician-investigators in the clinic and on inpatient rounds.
  • Present their summer research at the UAB Summer Expo.
  • Attend the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students.
  • Receive instruction in essay writing, MCAT preparation and critical career skills, funded by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.

Onatunde’s Medical Science Training Program mentor from last summer was Morgan Zipperly, a UAB M.D./Ph.D. program student, who came by to visit as Onatunde presented this year’s research at the UAB Summer Expo for undergraduate research. Onatunde says that Zipperly continued to share advice during the past year as Onatunde was back in school in Orlando, Florida.

The PARAdiGM Program supports student attendance at the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students in the fall. That meant a trip to Seattle last November for Onatunde, along with her fellow PARAdiGM students.

“Seattle was amazing, period. I loved it!” Onatunde wrote in the PARAdiGM blog. “I mean the weather could have been better; but hey, it’s Seattle. When it stopped raining, though, it was so beautiful.”

“From the moment I got there, I just kept on being reminded how blessed I was. There is so much there for an aspiring undergrad,” she explained. “It’s just a ball of opportunity, to be honest. I learned so much and met so many people from different walks of life. I got to speak to many programs and realize what I want and what I don’t want in a program.”

“Man, it was amazing.”

During her two summers in Birmingham, Onatunde also sampled the fun that Birmingham offers. In her returning summer, she started a Summer Student Council to help facilitate social activities for her fellow students, including tubing in the Cahaba River, visiting the zoo, and attending the Caribbean Festival at Lynn Park, Art on the Rocks and potluck dinners with her fellow summer students.

The rising senior says she hopes to spend a year doing research at the National Institutes of Health after graduation, and then go to medical school.

Maria Onatunde reflects on her second summer at UAB

“There’s an older show I watch called ‘Heroes,’ about humans with superpowers (don’t judge me). One of the main characters is a time traveler, and this morning I woke up wishing I was him. With one blink of my eyes, I could stop time and go back a couple of months, and that’s exactly what I want to do. Go back. Unfortunately, the sad reality is that in the next two days I’ll have to say goodbye to Birmingham, the wonderful experiences I’ve had and the wonderful friends I’ve made.

“This is my second summer coming back, and I am beyond glad that I did. I’ve learned so much about who I am, my strengths, my weaknesses and what I am capable of in this short time.

“I think the smartest thing to do when you come to UAB’s Paradigm/SIBS program is to come with goals. There are so many opportunities here, and the program coordinators are more than happy to help you achieve what you want, if you know what you want.

“That’s how I came this year, with goals, and I’m glad to say I’ve achieved them. I’ve shadowed amazing physicians, worked for one of my role models in her lab. I’ve really gotten out of my comfort zone and made some amazing friends.

“Most importantly, I’ve gained a greater sense of identity and understanding. Being in this program has not only helped me decide my next step, but it has also helped me understand more in depth what I want. It has shown me what I need in a mentor when I take my year off and hopefully land a post-bac position at the NIH. It has also shown me that, beyond just getting into medical school, I desire a support system — extended family in the area, fellow students who are each other’s No. 1 fans and faculty that will stop at nothing to see you succeed. That’s the environment I experienced this year, and I want it forever.”

—From the PARAdiGM blog at UAB