LSU Team Receives MARC Award from National Institutes of Health to Boost Diversity in Biomedical Research

This is the first MARC award at LSU and the second in Louisiana.

Brandon Byrd in Graça Vicente’s lab

Brandon Byrd conducted research in Dr. Graça Vicente’s lab as part of the LSU IMSD program, which preceded the MARC. He is currently a PhD-MD student at UConn Health.

BATON ROUGE, May 20, 2020 – For decades, LSU has participated in national efforts to encourage diversity in undergraduate research—especially in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, or STEM. In 2004, the university joined the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Initiative for Maximizing Student Development (IMSD) R25 program to increase the participation and retention of minority, disabled, and economically disadvantaged students in various biomedical fields, such as chemistry, biology, human and veterinary medicine, kinesiology, psychology, and biological and mechanical engineering. That initiative was recently replaced by the NIH with the Maximizing Access to Research Careers (MARC) T34 program, geared specifically toward college juniors and seniors who are interested in pursuing a PhD or PhD-MD in biomedical or behavioral sciences after they graduate.

“One of the reasons we were successful in securing this funding is that we had 14 years of experience with the IMSD program and were able to unify our efforts,” said Graça Vicente, Charles H. Barré Distinguished Professor of Chemistry, IMSD program director at LSU since 2007, and now principal investigator, or PI, for MARC. “LSU has emerged as a national model for advancing and promoting inclusion, equity, and diversity, and improving the success rates of underrepresented students.”

More than half of the students who participated in the IMSD program as undergraduates ended up pursuing a PhD. Six incoming juniors will now be selected as MARC scholars for this fall—this year’s application window for students opens on June 24, 2020—with a total of 30 undergraduates participating in the program over the next five years. Research experience is not required, but students must show real interest in biomedical research. 

Four LSU faculty on the MARC leadership team are past recipients of the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Mentoring.

“Many of the students we had in the IMSD program were first in their family to go to college,” said Dr. Gretchen Schneider, manager of public relations and community outreach in the LSU Department of Chemistry and MARC program manager. “And some had never before traveled outside the state. I’m especially thinking about one of the first students we had in the program; I ended up flying with her to a national conference in California. After she graduated, she worked in the public school system for a while. Now she’s finishing her PhD.”

Mentorship is a big part of the program. In fact, four LSU faculty on the MARC leadership team are past recipients of the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Mentoring. Co-PIs on the grant are Tyrslai Williams-Carter, director of research, education and outreach programs with the LSU Office of Strategic Initiatives, and Vice President of Strategic Initiatives Isiah Warner, Boyd Professor and Phillip W. West Professor of Surface and Analytical Chemistry. Last year, he received the lifetime achievement Nature Award for Mentoring in Science as he helped LSU become the top producer of women and African Americans with a PhD in chemistry among all universities in the U.S.

“As a result of this funding, a diverse pool of undergraduate students will have enhanced research opportunities by working in the laboratories of their faculty mentors,” Warner said. “MARC is a highly competitive program and it is through the leadership and efforts of Dr. Graça Vicente in chemistry that we were able to compete and acquire this award.”

“We’ve learned a lot over the years,” Vicente continued. “Students have different barriers to learning, so it’s important to use a variety of methods to keep them engaged. We give them support to take the GRE, get them involved with research presentations, hands-on in the lab, invite speakers, have one-on-one meetings and group meetings, form a group of mentors for each student, listen to each other, travel and have meals together. Our program has been continuously evolving and we found a way to form a community of students, which really made a difference. We also work to convey the idea to the students that they really can make a big contribution to the scientific community.” 

“LSU has emerged as a national model for advancing and promoting inclusion, equity, and diversity, and improving the success rates of underrepresented students.”—Graça Vicente

An institution can have only one MARC program at a given time, and participation is a prerequisite for other NIH training programs, such as ESTEEMED, which also aims to enhance the diversity of the biomedical research workforce through undergraduate support.

One difference between the IMSD and MARC programs is that the latter offers year-round support for students, including over the summer. Before their junior year, MARC scholars will be able to get research experience working with faculty on the LSU campus, and the next summer, at research-intensive facilities anywhere in the US.

“We are really looking forward to have the students come back and share their experience,” Vicente said. “Contributing what they’ve learned in the summer between their junior and senior years to the other MARC students. Keeping students active in research over the summer is quite important; we saw that with the IMSD program. Supporting the students so they don’t take a non-academic summer job instead of staying on track to their future careers.”

Wise from her experience with IMSD, Vicente is aware her team might “lose” some students to medical school—some decide to go after an MD rather than a PhD-MD. It’s a choice between practicing medicine as a doctor, or potentially becoming leaders in impactful medical research.

“I’m just super excited to continue what we’ve been doing for the last 14 years and help young students become highly skilled, competitive, and productive scientists who will fill a national need. MARC provides us with the opportunity to do exactly that,” said Vicente.

More information about the LSU MARC program is available on the LSU Department of Chemistry website.

More information about the national MARC program is available on the NIH website.  

Elsa Hahne
LSU Office of Research & Economic Development