Monday, Feb. 22, 2016
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.”
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.
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!