Getting Prepped for Success

Several male and female students sit on couches around a coffee table. One male and one female, each seated in an armchair, hold a friendly discussion with them.
By Mandy Walker
Einstein’s intensive program helps underrepresented students earn places in biomedical graduate schools

When Schnaude Dorizan was a senior at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, she thought her good grades and double major in biology and psychology would ensure her admission to a neuroscience graduate school program—until all eight schools she applied to rejected her.

A professor said her lack of lab research experience was the likely culprit, and suggested she look into the Postbaccalaureate Research Education Program, commonly known as PREP, offered at certain universities and medical schools and funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

More Science Training

Ms. Dorizan, born in Haiti and raised in Brooklyn, was one of only five people accepted into Einstein’s first PREP class in 2013. Like many PREP scholars, Ms. Dorizan is a first-generation college graduate. PREP helps students from groups underrepresented in biomedical, clinical, behavioral, and social science fields become successful applicants for Ph.D. or M.D./Ph.D. programs in the biomedical sciences.

African Americans, American Indians, and Hispanics together represent about 30 percent of the U.S. population. Yet less than 9 percent of Ph.D. recipients in science, technology, engineering, and math fields belong to those minority groups, according to a 2012 survey.

The PREP program provides each student with a mentor, a stipend to help pay for living costs, a laboratory research project, and help with graduate school applications.

“These students learn enough about science in their undergraduate institutions to realize they want to become scientists, but need more training,” says Myles Akabas, M.D., Ph.D., professor of physiology & biophysics and co-director of Einstein’s PREP program. “They didn’t have time to do actual lab research and to master the skills needed to become successful graduate school candidates,”adds Dr. Akabas, who is also a professor in the Dominick P. Purpura Department of Neuroscience.

Map of United States, outline of microscope.
Source: Northwestern University and Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

Matched to Labs

Einstein receives 140 applications each year for just seven PREP positions. After the scholars are chosen, Dr. Akabas and his co-director, Victoria Freedman, Ph.D., associate dean for graduate programs in biomedical sciences, determine the students’ research preferences and match them with faculty members with similar interests. The “PREPpies” talk with potential mentors, make their choices, and then jump right into their lab work.

Most scholars spend one year in PREP, although some stay for two if they need more research time or choose to take classes they missed while they were undergraduates.

For example, current PREP scholar Leandrew Dailey, 22, from Piñon, Arizona, is taking biochemistry while working on research to develop antibodies to fight viruses, including Ebola, in the lab of his mentor, Jonathan R. Lai, Ph.D., professor of biochemistry.

“The PREP program has definitely helped me decide what type of research I want to focus on,” says Mr. Dailey, who grew up on a Navajo Nation reservation and earned his bachelor’s degree at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado. “And it has made me confident in my ability to pursue a scientific career.”

Drs. Akabas and Freedman also meet regularly with the scholars to help them prepare for the graduate school application process, choose which (and how many) schools to apply to, write the all-important personal statements included in graduate school applications, and practice for interviews.

The PREP program has definitely helped me decide what type of research I want to focus on. And it has made me confident in my ability to pursue a scientific career.
– Leandrew Daily, PREP scholar

“The statement helps a graduate school admissions committee to know your goals, what you’ll bring to the school, and what you’re hoping to get out of their program,” says Marcel Malena, 23, a PREP scholar from Queens. He is working with his mentor, Libusha Kelly, Ph.D., assistant professor of systems & computational biology, to study metabolism and the microbiome of the human gut.

“It’s a good chance to highlight significant things about yourself that don’t appear elsewhere on your application,” Mr. Malena says. He adds, “While it’s great to get help with our research and getting into graduate school, Dr. Akabas and Dr. Freedman also help us with personal issues, because they know training for our future is more complicated than just science and data.”

The grad students and postdocs in the Einstein Minority Scientist Association work with the PREP scholars as well. “Among other benefits, this kind of close peer mentoring provides our PREP scholars with role models, showing that other minorities are succeeding in this field, so they know they can, too,” Dr. Freedman says.

Attending an annual symposium with the PREP programs from two other medical schools—the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City and the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia—gives the scholars the chance to present their research.

They also go to the NIH-sponsored Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students, the largest meeting of its kind in the United States. There they take professional-development workshops, attend scientific sessions, and network with graduate school deans.

Dr. Akabas and Dr. Freedman also help us with personal issues, because they know training for our future is more complicated than just science and data.

– Marcel Malena, PREP scholar

A High Success Rate

All 21 candidates who’ve completed Einstein’s PREP program have been accepted to grad school. Ms. Dorizan, for example, is now in her fourth year in the interdepartmental neuroscience graduate program at Northwestern University in Chicago.

“Pursuing my PREP research project, presenting my research at conferences, learning how to ask questions at seminars, and talking about my work with other scientists gave me the preparation I needed to set myself up for success in graduate school,” says the 27-year-old.

“Graduate schools aren’t looking for students who have memorized information—they want students who are excited about science and know how to tackle a research project, and that’s what I got from Einstein,” she adds. “I’m in an amazing neuroscience program, and I would not be here without PREP.”

Why Diversity Matters

Einstein offers several “pipeline” initiatives aimed at increasing diversity and promoting inclusion in the medical and science workforce. But the Postbaccalaureate Research Education Program (PREP) is the only one that focuses on bridging the gap between undergraduate and graduate programs in the biomedical sciences.

PREP and the other programs are important for addressing long-standing inequalities, “but they also lead to better science,” says Victoria Freedman, Ph.D., Einstein’s co-director of the PREP program.

Libusha Kelly, Ph.D., a mentor to one of this year’s PREP students, agrees. “Science needs a diversity of viewpoints to keep making groundbreaking discoveries,” she says. “If you only support people coming out of the same schools, the same labs, you’ll never get the kind of creativity that comes from interactions between people with different backgrounds, different training, different ideas. We need to do this at all levels.”

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