Newswise — The National Institutes of Health (NIH) awarded The University of Texas at El Paso BUILDing SCHOLARS program a $15.2 million grant to train the next generation of biomedical researchers in the U.S. Southwest and to enhance the diversity of the biomedical research workforce.

BUILDing SCHOLARS, which stands for Building Infrastructure Leading to Diversity: Southwest Consortium of Health-Oriented Education Leaders and Research Scholars, is currently in Phase II of three linked awards for a total of $15.2 million since the program started in 2014. Some of the areas of focus include cancer, addiction, environmental health, health disparities, infectious disease, translational biomedicine, and degenerative and chronic diseases. Its visionary approach addresses individual, psychosocial and institutional-level needs by synergistically enhancing institutional, faculty and student development.

The program has 58 undergraduate scholars enrolled in the fall 2019 semester. Program participants receive a monthly stipend and 60% of their tuition costs covered, which allows students to immerse themselves in their UTEP research.

UTEP’s BUILDing SCHOLARS is one of the nation’s 10 BUILD sites that train the next generation of scientists who will increase diversity in the biomedical research workforce. The program also offers faculty training opportunities to improve as mentors and grant writers so they can share those skills with their students. It also provides research opportunities throughout the academic year for students, to include freshman.

Research experiences within the first two years are critically important to student success, said Lourdes Echegoyen, Ph.D., the program’s principal investigator and director of the Campus Office of Undergraduate Research Initiatives (COURI). Students’ research participation can start at the freshmen level through Course-based Undergraduate Research Experiences (CUREs), which help retain students as they become excited about their professional future with hands-on experiences in their field.

“Evaluation results from Phase I of the program are showing that an early research experience allows students to feel part of a community of researchers and learners, which instills in them an early sense of belonging to the University and their profession,” Echegoyen said.

The program also includes partnerships with pipeline collaborators – other institutions that send their students to UTEP and other research partner institutions for summer research and may participate in other programs designed for faculty development. Pipeline partners include El Paso Community College, Northern New Mexico College, Western New Mexico University, Texas Southern University and Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute.

Research partner institutions host UTEP students over the summer to broaden their research training. UTEP’s research partner institutions include Clemson University (South Carolina), The University of Texas at Austin, the University of Arizona, the University of Utah, Arizona State University, the University of Connecticut, Rice University, Baylor College of Medicine, The University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.

“UTEP’s partnership with these R1 (top tier research) institutions provides excellent opportunities for students to network and gain entrance into top Ph.D. programs in biomedical fields in the nation, as well as for faculty to engage in or continue existing research collaborations,” Echegoyen said.

Marc Cox, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Biological Sciences, deputy director of the BUILDing SCHOLARS’ program and director of the Center for Faculty Leadership and Development at UTEP, said the program’s ultimate goal is to increase the diversity of the biomedical research workforce in the U.S.

“We know as faculty, as scientists, as educators and as educational institutions that these opportunities in research labs are high-impact practices for our students,” Cox said. “Students who participate in federally funded research go on to do so much better in the future. We are providing training opportunities for our faculty to better themselves for the benefit of our students. If our faculty are successful as scientists at getting research funding and running top-notch research labs, then they are providing more opportunities and higher quality opportunities for our students.”

The faculty cohort consists of 63 members who include research mentors and instructors for the Freshmen Year Research Intensive Sequence Program. In addition to 58 undergraduate scholars, the 2019-20 student cohort includes six graduate research assistants.

Support for students in the program includes personalized advisers and peer mentors. Participation in mentored research is a requirement, and students submit periodic research reports in preparation for a senior thesis.

Aiyana Ponce, a senior cellular and molecular biochemistry major, said the BUILD grant gave her many research opportunities at UTEP and other campuses. She has been involved in research-driven courses since she was a freshman.

“We get the foundations of how to conduct research and they really train and start giving us these skills,” Ponce said. “At the time I thought that was normal. I thought all science students were doing that. But as I kept going through the curriculum, I realized that I really did have opportunities that many students didn’t have and I’m very thankful for that.”

Ponce said she was able to go to different places in the country for 10 weeks of summer undergraduate research during her participation in the program.

“This experience really opened my eyes to how amazing UTEP is because we are really competitive in research compared to other institutions that I’ve had a chance to visit,” Ponce said. “Last year we were designated as an R1 institution.

Undergraduate students may work with researchers in the lab, an uncommon practice in many other institutions.

“If you walk into any of the (UTEP) science buildings, you will see many students working in labs,” Ponce said. “That kind of experience is preparing them to go to graduate or medical schools, or programs they wish to be a part of when they graduate.”

One of the program’s cornerstones for participants is an early intervention approach that aims to address multiple predictors of success, such as first- and second-year retention, perceptions of social integration and university fit, and research self-efficacy and science identity, all of which directly align with the NIH Diversity Program Consortium Hallmarks of Success.

“Ultimately the BUILDing SCHOLARS program is designed to transition our students into Ph.D. programs and research careers,” Cox said.

In addition to Cox and Echegoyen, who co-direct the BUILDing SCHOLARS Center and the program’s administrative core, six other faculty members have leadership roles. Stephen Aley, Ph.D., professor of biology and bioinformatics and associate vice president for research, and Lawrence Cohn, Ph.D., professor of psychology, co-direct the institutional development core. Thomas Boland, Ph.D., professor and director of bioengineering, and Osvaldo Morera, Ph.D., professor of psychology, co-direct the training core. Amy Wagler, Ph.D., associate professor of mathematical sciences, and Danielle (Xiaodan) Morales, Ph.D., professor of sociology, co-direct the research enrichment core. Guadalupe Corral, Ph.D., is the program’s lead evaluator.