Biomedical workforce program proves successful in encouraging diversity, receives additional grant for support

UAB’s PREP Scholars proves successful by furthering student dreams as it receives a grant to continue preparing minority baccalaureate students for graduate programs.

jervaughn hunter streamJervaughn Hunter recently graduated from the PREP Scholars Program. He will attend the University of California San Diego in pursuit of a Ph.D. in bioengineering this fall. To be competitive for doctoral graduate programs, students must have previous research experience alongside strong writing and presentation skills. The University of Alabama at Birmingham PREP Scholars Program supports underrepresented students who have recently obtained their undergraduate degrees and are looking to pursue doctoral studies in the biomedical sciences in leading graduate programs.

Jervaughn Hunter, a 2018 graduate of the PREP program, will begin his pursuit of a Ph.D. in bioengineering this fall at the University of California-San Diego because of the support received from the program.

“I grew up picturing the human body as a finely tuned machine and wanted to know more of what I could do to help repair the body after injury or disease,” said Hunter, a Port Gibson, Mississippi, native. “After taking my first biomaterials class, I became interested in research. My fascination stemmed from reading scientific articles and the scientific breakthroughs coming from this field of study.”

Hunter began looking for research opportunities in the UAB School of Engineering Project Lab, a course that allows students to redesign and upgrade previous senior design projects within the UAB Department of Biomedical Engineering, ultimately refining their skills as engineers. Hunter worked as a student assistant in the electrophysiology core of the UAB Department of Neuroscience.

“Both of these opportunities catalyzed my affinity for research,” Hunter said. “During my senior year, I began looking for research opportunities and identifying my next career step. I was instantly drawn to the UAB PREP Program’s mission to expose students to intensive and rigorous research, as well as guide and prepare them for graduate studies.”

After receiving his Bachelor of Science degree in biomedical engineering with a concentration in biomaterials and tissue engineering from UAB, Hunter was accepted in the UAB Graduate School’s PREP Program. As part of the PREP Program, Hunter joined Jianyi Zhang’s lab, which focuses on cardiovascular tissue regeneration research. Hunter’s long-term goal is to contribute to the methods and technologies that heal and repair damaged heart tissue as a result of ischemic heart disease.

Hunter prepared for the GRE test and began graduate level classes as part of the program, while taking weekly workshops and working closely with faculty to begin research and prepare for graduate school. Through the program, Hunter presented his research, “Investigating the maturation and cell cycle of human induced pluripotent stem cell derived cardiomyocytes after genetic modification and electrical stimulation,” at the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students.

“All of these experiences combined through the PREP Program further boosted my confidence while applying for graduate school,” Hunter said. “My ultimate goal is to receive a Ph.D. in bioengineering or biomedical engineering and focus on repairing damage to the myocardium caused by ischemic heart disease through cardiovascular tissue regeneration. With the help of UAB, I’m now taking the next step toward this goal.”

The UAB PREP Program supports recent minority undergraduates looking to pursue a doctoral graduate degree in biomedical sciences by providing extra experience students need to gain acceptance into science programs in leading graduate schools. The program grant was renewed for $1.79 million by the NIH to support eight PREP students per year over the next five years.

The UAB PREP Program supports recent minority undergraduates looking to pursue a doctoral graduate degree in biomedical sciences by providing extra experience students need to gain acceptance into science programs in leading graduate schools. UAB’s program grant was recently renewed for $1.79 million by the National Institutes of Health to support eight PREP students per year over the next five years.

“UAB has an outstanding record of successful training for graduate students and a strong commitment to training doctoral students from diverse backgrounds,” said Daniel C. Bullard, Ph.D., co-director of the program and associate dean for Recruitment, Retention and Diversity in the UAB Graduate School. “UAB has established several programs to help both undergraduate students from underserved groups who aspire to doctoral careers and graduate students who need financial support to pursue graduate studies. Specifically, the PREP Scholars Program provides an additional pathway for a diverse pool of post-baccalaureate applicants to enter doctoral programs in the biomedical sciences.”

Jeffrey Engler, Ph.D., former associate dean in the Graduate School, established the UAB PREP Scholars Program in 2009. Since its inception, approximately 70 percent of the UAB PREP program’s participants have gone on to a graduate studies program, including at UAB, Emory University, Stanford University, Duke University, Vanderbilt University and the University of Iowa. Many of the students who participated in the early years of the program are now obtaining doctoral degrees.

“Students undergo a complete transformation over the course of the program,” said Cristin Gavin, Ph.D., co-director of the PREP program and assistant professor in the UAB Department of Neurobiology. “We observe dramatic increases in scholars’ self-confidence, professionalism and competency in the lab. In short, they transform into capable scientists.”

Students who received their baccalaureate degrees in the past three years train for one to two years based on an individually developed plan and are paired with faculty for hands-on research projects. Students obtain the necessary research experience needed to become competitive for entry into a top graduate program in the biomedical sciences. The program includes GRE workshops and practice exams, poster presentation sessions, the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students, and presenting at UAB Graduate Student Research Day.

Each student in the program receives a yearly stipend of $27,200, plus health insurance and tuition for up to 11 credit hours of academic instruction.

The 2018 PREP Scholars include Melissa Garcia, who will attend UAB’s Graduate Biomedical Sciences Program in Neuroscience; Solomon Gibson, who will attend Baylor College of Medicine for Neuroscience; Hunter, who will attend the University of California-San Diego; and Yasmine Pettway, who will attend Vanderbilt University’s Medical Scientist Training Program.

The incoming cohort welcomes Audrey Weber from Agnes State College, Courtney Swain from the University of West Florida, Devyn Lambright from Jacksonville State University, Donald Long from Southern Utah University, Eric Stokes from Morehouse College, Jennifer Freire from InterAmerican University of Puerto Rico Guayama, Patricia Galvan from California State Polytechnic University in Pomona and Paula Dorcenat from Bethune-Cookman College.