VCU’s research training programs give underrepresented students and faculty a platform for discovery

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Last November, Virginia Commonwealth University senior Delisa Clay was one of the 96 students out of 2,035 picked to give an oral presentation of her research at the 15th Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students in Seattle. That alone was huge.

And then she won “Best Oral Presentation” for her talk, “Defining Cellular Dynamics and Biomechanical Forces During Wound Healing in Xenopus laevis Embryos.” Only one other VCU student has won an oral presentation award at the event in the past five years. It was a big deal for Clay — and for VCU.

The competition level is high for this award. Students are judged based on their research, presentation skills and how well they answer questions about their work. “The quality of the presentations students are giving is way above what we expect normal undergrads to do,” said Sarah Golding, Ph.D., instructor in the Department of Biology at the College for Humanities and Sciences and director of the undergraduate component of the Initiative for Maximizing Student Development program.

Clay’s research is a result of her work as a scholar with IMSD. It’s one of several research training programs within VCU’s Center on Health Disparities aimed at increasing the number of people from underrepresented backgrounds obtaining a Ph.D. in biomedical sciences.

“We want the best and brightest people to be doing scientific research and solving biomedical problems,” said Joyce Lloyd, Ph.D., professor and vice chair of education for the Department of Human and Molecular Genetics. She’s also co-director of CoHD’s postdoctoral program, Institutional Research and Academic Career Development Award, with Paul Fisher, Ph.D., professor and chair of the Department of Human and Molecular Genetics. “If you’re only capturing part of the population, then you’re not going to get all the best and the brightest.”

Delisa Clay

Discovery through diversity

There is a belief that when you have diversity, science itself is enriched in the broad sense.

Just as diversity is said to foster a more creative workforce highly adept at problem-solving, diversity in science is critical for discovery and innovation. “There is a belief that when you have diversity, science itself is enriched in the broad sense,” said Louis De Felice, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Physiology and Biophysics and IMSD program director. “Diversity itself is something worth pursuing in its own right. It has scientific benefits.”

However, science still suffers from a predominantly homogenous pool of researchers. Based on a 2013 National Science Foundation study, underrepresented minorities make up less than 10 percent of those pursuing doctorates in science and engineering disciplines — a percentage that has flattened since 2000.

To help balance the disproportion, the National Institutes of Health funds a portfolio of grant programs to get underrepresented students into the pipeline for a biomedical research career. Universities across the country have instituted one or more of these grant programs, and VCU is one of only a handful of universities that currently holds funding from five of these grants.

“Underrepresented” is the word best used to describe the students who would qualify for the grants, according to De Felice. Racial ethnicity can play a role, though “underrepresented” expands the parameters to include people who are economically and educationally deprived, and even those with a disability, all of which can express itself as a disadvantage. “When a person applies to the program, they can identify their own definition of being underrepresented,” De Felice said.

First-generation scientist

In the lab, Clay works with African clawed frog embryos. There is a delicate nature to her work. She anesthetizes the embryos, makes a deliberate superficial wound and uses a biosensor to measure the forces across the cells — or how the cells move and behave — during wound healing. “So far my findings suggest that a manipulation of cellular forces may serve as a potential treatment for chronic or slow-healing wounds in patients with a compromised immune system,” she said.

She loves her work. However, when Clay came to VCU, she didn’t understand the basics of research, and she had never even used a microscope. That was OK. Her passion was medicine and she wanted to be a doctor.

As a kid, she watched surgery shows and she thrived at science. There was also family pressure. “In my culture and family, if you’re good at biology and you’re smart, they automatically put you in this box of being a doctor. There are no other options,” said Clay, who grew up in an unstable household and moved around a lot before settling with her grandmother in Virginia. She is the first in her family to go to a four-year university.

It’s common for underrepresented students to not have exposure to research careers, and they often don’t see people who look like them in these careers, according to De Felice. “They head straight to medicine because that is what they know or have been told is the best way to make it,” he said. “But if you scratch a little bit, you realize a lot of them are scientists and what they like is science.”

That’s what happened to Clay in her sophomore year. She was in a cell biology class, and her professor started asking questions about the future. What are you going to do when you graduate? What are your options if you don’t get into medical school?

Read the rest of this article at VCU News!

Call for Student Presenters: VCU Diversity Scholars in Research Week!



The Office of Multicultural Student Affairs at VCU is sponsoring the second annual Diversity Scholars in Research Week.  This event will be Feb. 22-25, 2016. If you are interested in participating the Student Poster Exhibition, where students display posters of their original research please fill out the application.

Other affiliated partners and sponsors include:  Office of Career Services, Department of African American Studies, Office of Research and Innovation, The Division for Health Sciences Diversity, The Center for Health Disparities,VCU LSAMP, University College, the National Scholarship Office, and the Division of Community Engagement.

Researchers from diverse backgrounds or have research topics in diverse topical areas are encouraged to present. The Poster Exhibition will be held on Wednesday February 24 from 12-2pm in the Student Commons. You will need to be present for at least one hour to present your poster. The deadline for poster submission is Wednesday February 17th.

The link to submit is

The full schedule of the week’s events is as follows:

Monday- Keynote Luncheon 12-1:30pm  VA rooms A-D 

2015 PACME Awardee and VCU Engineering Scholar Dr. Rosalyn Hobson Hargraves

Student Testimonials

Tuesday-Educational Sessions  9am-1pm VA room A and B 

9:00am How to Write Your Personal Statement

9:30am How to Prepare Your Resume for Research

10:00am How to Write Your Personal Statement

10:30am How to Prepare Your Resume for Research

11:00am How to Get Involved in Undergraduate Research

11:30am  How do I get into Graduate School?*

12:00pm How to Get Involved in Undergraduate Research

12:30pm How do I get into Graduate School?*

Wednesday– Poster Exhibition and Research Fair 12-2pm James River Terrace and VA rooms

Thursday- Education Session 9am-1pm Forum Room

10:00am & 10:30am Resume Workshop

11:00am & 11:30am How to Get Involved in Undergraduate Research

12:00pm & 12:30pm Creating Effective Presentations*

1:00pm & 1:30pm Financing Your Research with the National Scholarship Office

For more information, please contact VCU OMSA!



Undergraduate Research positions with Pharmacotherapy and Outcomes Science


Research opportunities in pharmacogenetics and genomics

We have open undergraduate research positions in the laboratory of Dr. Joseph L. McClay, Ph.D., Department of Pharmacotherapy and Outcomes Science, VCU School of Pharmacy.

A description of the research opportunities are provided below and an application form is attached at the bottom of this posting.

Summary of research themes

Dr. McClay’s program focuses on finding and characterizing genetic biomarkers of psychiatric drug response, in addition to functional characterization of genes associated with psychiatric disorders. Our laboratory in the Robert Blackwell Smith Building on the MCV Campus is well equipped with quantitative and digital PCR instruments, cell culture facilities and quantitative imaging equipment. The Department has recently invested heavily in facilities for genomics, proteomics and metabolomics (massively-parallel, discovery-oriented biological technologies), so we are exceptionally well positioned to conduct research at several levels of biological inquiry. Furthermore, the nature of these efforts requires sophisticated data handling and bioinformatics methods to analyze and interpret these data. Currently we have access to cluster computing and terabytes of storage space for this purpose.

Research projects can focus on wet-lab genomics, computational approaches or combine elements of both. Students should feel free to bring their own ideas to Dr. McClay to discuss feasibility or explore one of three different potential research themes in the laboratory:

  1. Characterization of DNA-binding proteins implicated in psychiatric disorders
  1. Characterization of genes involved in psychiatric drug response
  1. Measuring environmental and drug effects on biological regulation

Methods used in pursuit of these goals may include: Central nervous system cell culture, transgenic rodent studies, DNA and RNA extraction, RNA interference, chromatin immunoprecipitation, Western blotting, quantitative and digital PCR, next-generation sequencing, targeted epigenetics analysis, genome-wide data analysis, tandem mass tag proteomics, liquid chromatography – mass spectrometry metabolomics, multivariate data analysis, pathway analysis, data integration.

Students can volunteer their time or gain independent study credit hours. Please send your completed application form and a statement of interest to

Pharmacotherapy Research Assistant Application

Call for Applications: VCU IMSD Undergraduate Research Training Program

IMSD Undergrad FLYER 2015 pictureIMSD flyer 2 2016

The deadline for applications is: March 15th 2016 Prospective students can apply online here:–Training/Apply-Now/

If you have any further questions about the program please contact Dr. Sarah Golding

For Questions regarding the application process please contact:

Ms Khiana Meade, IMSD Program Coordinator:

On-Campus Summer Undergraduate Research Programs at VCU!

UROP students

Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) Summer FellowshipMar. 1st The Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) will fund a limited number of undergraduate student fellowship awards for projects mentored by VCU faculty. Successful student applicants will receive a cash stipend of $1,500 and $500 for the faculty mentor.

Global Education Undergraduate Research Fellowships – Mar. 1st                                The Global Education Office will fund three unique undergraduate fellowship awards for research projects, mentored by VCU faculty. Research proposals should show evidence of significant engagement with a culture originating from outside of the US that is different from the applicant’s native culture. Successful proposals should exhibit how the project will increase the student researcher’s knowledge, skills and experience to demonstrate successfully functioning across a variety of borders, such as national, linguistic, cultural, religious, and/or others. Each fellowship award includes $1500 in funding for the student and $500 for the faculty mentor.

Undergraduate Fellowships for Clinical and Translational ResearchMar. 1st              The VCU Center for Clinical and Translational Research will fund one undergraduate research fellowship award for a clinical translational research project focused on human health and mentored by a VCU faculty member. A clinical translational research project is one that aims to translate scientific discoveries into improved human health and wellness. Successful proposals must discuss how the project will increase the student researcher’s knowledge, skills and experience while simultaneously attempting to advance human health through clinical research. Each fellowship award includes $1500 in funding for the student and $500 for the faculty mentor.

Undergraduate Fellowships for Community Engaged & Translational Research – Mar. 1stThe Division of Community Engagement and the Center for Clinical and Translational Research (CCTR) will fund three undergraduate community-engaged research fellowship awards for research projects mentored by VCU faculty and carried out in collaboration with a community partner. Proposals for this fellowship should include a community-engaged research project that creates and disseminates knowledge or creative expression with the goal of contributing to the discipline and strengthening the well-being of the community. At least one of these fellowships will be awarded to a project that focuses on the advancement of human health.  Each fellowship award includes $1500 in funding for the student and $500 for the faculty mentor.

Undergraduate Research Fellowship for Inclusive Excellence – Mar. 1st                       The VCU Division for Inclusive Excellence will fund one undergraduate research fellowship award for a faculty-mentored research project focused on “diversity” as it relates to ideas, cultures, backgrounds and experiences. Successful proposals must discuss how the project will increase the student researcher’s knowledge, skills and experience related to the social, economic, political and historical significance of particular differences. This project may investigate diversity through the lens of gender, race/ethnicity, religion, socio-economic status, disabilities and/or international issues. Each fellowship award includes $1500 in funding for the student and $500 for the faculty mentor.

Honors Summer Undergraduate Research ProgramTBA  The Honors College cultivates a community of students and faculty focused on collaborative research that goes beyond the typical undergraduate experience. To that end, the Honors Summer Undergraduate Research Program is an opportunity for you to work one-on-one with a faculty mentor and participate in professional development workshops throughout the summer, as well as engage in research projects for independent study.

VCU IMSD Scholars Program – TBA
The VCU Initiative for Maximizing Student Diversity is a biomedical research training program for undergraduate students interested in biomedical research.

VCU-IMSD scholars participate in research internships in the summers following their freshman and sophomore years and during their junior and senior academic years. Scholars also enroll in a series of courses that help develop their skills in biomedical research, critical thinking, problem solving, and written and oral communication. The VCU-IMSD program also offers specialized career counseling, assistance with graduate school applications, and a Graduate Record Examination (GRE) preparation course, as well as the opportunity to attend national scientific conferences. Paid research internships are available for select scholars.

Rice Center Research GrantsApr. 1st                                                                          The Rice Center for Environmental Life Sciences is soliciting graduate and undergraduate student research proposals that will advance the Rice Center’s mission in environmental science, health and education. Research grants up to $1,000 (undergraduate and graduate students) or $1,500 (Ph.D. students) may be used to purchase supplies and equipment, defray related travel expenses, and possibly to provide partial summer stipends. Eligible research activities are field studies conducted at the Rice Center property inclusive of the tidal James River, its tributaries, and associated riparian and upland landscapes in the vicinity of the Rice Center. Projects that involve nearby public lands owned by Rice Center partners, such as the USFWS and VDGIF, are also encouraged. Collaborative projects are encouraged and students may submit joint proposals.

Microbiology, Infectious Disease and Public Health Epidemiology – Mar. 15th Join us at VCU for a new Summer Student Program in Microbiology, Infectious Diseases and Public Health Epidemiology. The School of Medicine will offer an integrated series of seminars and workshops that range from local to global issues in infectious diseases. Studies are related to infectious diseases from basic science (pathogenic microbiology) to applied science (epidemiology). Accepted students will be paired with a mentor to conduct research in the areas of: microbiology, clinical research, or epidemiology.

Physiology and Biophysics Summer Research ProgramMar. 1st  The duration of SURP in Physiology and Biophysics is 10 weeks, from early June to mid August. Students are expected to work full-time in the host lab. Support for living expenses will be provided by the program. During the summer, in addition to work in the host lab, students will interact with faculty members and graduate students in the department to acquaint themselves with various research opportunities, facilities and the general environment of the department. Mechanisms to encourage these interactions include: 1) a breakfast gathering once per week with scientific presentations from members of the Department or to present progress reports in the projects at the midpoint and end of the program and 2) social events for the students led by current PhD and MD/PhD candidates.

JACKS Pediatric and Neonatal Summer Scholars – Feb. 20th                                  JACK’s Summer Scholars Program has a rich history of providing students with the opportunity to view the world of neonatology and pediatric subspecialties through clinical mentoring and research. Summer scholars have the opportunity to work with the neonatal team as they provide care and conduct research related to infant and maternal health. Specific emphasis is placed on developing an understanding of multidisciplinary hospital care. The program also enables participants to explore medical career opportunities in pediatric subspecialties such as general surgery, anesthesiology, neurosurgery and infectious diseases.

RAMS Undergraduate Research Scholars – Mar. 24th
The Research Alliance for Microbiome Science (RAMS) Undergraduate Scholars Program serves to develop the next generation of leaders in microbiome science by providing undergraduate students the opportunity to work on research projects with RAMS Registry investigators. The award is $1,500 for the 6-week program. The program is open to VCU undergraduates who are rising sophomores, juniors or seniors. Scholars will perform a research project in the Fettweis laboratory to characterize the role of bacterial species in the maternal microbiome.

Summer Research Volunteer Opportunities at MCV – Mar. 15th

Spit for Science will be recruiting for Fall semester soon!

You should also consider applying for NSF-funded Research Experiences (REU) for Undergraduates located at a wide variety of locations across the country.  You can browse by research area or by location at the NSF site.

Biology majors!  There is an abundance of national summer research opportunities listed on the Biology Advising Blog.

You can find a full list of searchable, national summer research databases here!

If you have questions about applying for any of the programs listed above, please contact Herb Hill at

Databases for National Summer Undergraduate Research Opportunities


Searchable databases of off-campus summer research programs:

  • The University of California, Irvine keeps a list of summer opportunities for research. For more information on these opportunities, visit and click on Off-Campus Opportunities.
  •  ORAU and ORISE. With a network of colleges and universities across the nation and a wide range of federal agencies as sponsors, Oak Ridge Associated Universities (ORAU) administers a broad range of internships, scholarships, fellowships, and research experience programs.

Check out our full list of on-campus VCU Summer Research Programs here!