Ensuring research opportunities

by Libby George

People who appreciate the diversity of pills available to treat their ailments might not think about the diversity of the researchers making those pills.

Some University groups, however, make it their mission to ensure equal opportunity in research settings.

Charles Moldow, the Medical School’s associate dean for research, said there are research opportunities for all students – if they seek them.

“For the medical students, the principal thing is interest and enthusiasm,” Moldow said. He added that although diversity is preferable in a research setting, “we obviously don’t count, and it isn’t a quota.”

Moldow said there is also no central database for research opportunities, but interested students can meet with him to propose a plan. Moldow said minority status is not typically a consideration for research placement.

“There are national programs that do that … but I would hope that (our faculty) are pretty much blind,” he said.

Mixing things up

The Life Sciences Summer Undergraduate Research Program is one such program.

Launched in the summer of 1989, the program provides students in the fields of biomedical engineering, environmental science, neurology, molecular biology and independent research with faculty mentors and 10-week research projects.

Although the program – which aims to recruit students for the University’s Graduate and Medical schools – is not exclusively for minorities, underrepresented minority students are “extremely encouraged to apply.”

Program coordinator Evelyn Juliussen said diversity is in the University’s best interest.

“In any place, even the workplace, it’s better to learn different cultures,” Juliussen said.

She added that of last year’s 72 participants, 34 were “underrepresented minorities.”

Program co-director John Anderson said minority consideration weighs heavily on admissions decisions.

“(Minorities) are the people we are looking for,” Anderson said. “We tend to choose those people first and then fill it with nonminority students.”

He added all students must meet universal admission standards, regardless of race.

Juliussen said funding also is a consideration in recruiting students.

The program already has one grant from the National Science Foundation, Anderson said, and it will be mindful of foundation guidelines during the selection process.

“We have to be able to pay for what we are doing,” Anderson said. “That’s our goal and we work toward it.”

According to the National Science Foundation, “underrepresented” groups include Hispanic students, blacks, American Indians and “some Asian” groups.

Women, once considered an “underrepresented” group are now equally represented and are not a recruiting target, Anderson said.

The program has never received complaints from nonminority students about the admissions policies, he said.

Emily Schunk – an undergraduate child psychology major and one of the nonminority students in the neurology program through Life Sciences last summer – said the minority focus of admissions is fair.

“It gets kind of tiring when it’s all the same,” Schunk said. She added that this sort of program is essential to level the field for minorities who don’t have as many opportunities as others.

“I do think there’s a lot of people who get a lot of opportunities in their life,” she said. “I think it’s the fair thing to do. (Nonminorities) have so many other opportunities that having one program that caters to minorities and diversity is not unfair.”

Program diversity

In addition to the Life Science program, the University offers other programs that help minorities gain opportunities in research.

McNair Scholars – which also aims to recruit students for graduate school – targets low-income, first-generation college students.

According to statistics gathered by the U.S. Department of Education over the past 10 years, 85 percent of McNair students are minorities.

Among other services, the McNair program connects students with faculty mentors and research opportunities.

“It gave me a way to work in a lab, work with grad students and know what I wanted to do,” said Abigail Fisher, a former McNair scholar and current graduate student. “One of the main reasons I got into grad school was the research I had done.”

Minority students are not limited to University programs. For many students, Inroads – an organization that works with minority students to connect them with businesses – is also a helpful tool.

Elena Rosas, a first-year medical student at the University, found an internship with Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. through Inroads.

“I think that both summers I got some experience that helped me better visualize,” Rosas said. “It was really cool to see their specialty and what it was all about.”

Necessary measures?

Students said the programs were essential to promoting diversity.

“There were very few minorities. The majority of students were Caucasian,” Rosas said of her internship at Mayo.

Rosas said most of the interns at Mayo had gotten there because their parents worked there or had connections – which minority students rarely have.

Fisher, a member of the 1,500-member Little Traverse Bay Band of Odawa Indians, said it is hard for American Indians to find opportunities alone.

“I’m from Michigan, and within my tribe, I can’t name one other person who is going to get their Ph.D.,” Fisher said. “A lot of Native Americans have a hard time getting off the reservation.”

She added that resentment toward such programs is misguided.

“I know there are a lot of people, particularly white men, who say that they couldn’t participate in summer research opportunities,” Fisher said. “But they don’t go through a lot of the things my friends have had to go through.”