Workforce Inclusion in Neuroscience through Undergraduate Research Experience

New undergraduate research program promotes diversity in neuroscience

By

Melinda Weaver

The World Health Organization is targeting neurological diseases as one of the greatest threats to public health. In industrialized countries, deaths from neurological disease has increased from 30 to 40 percent during the last decade.

And now, health organizations such as National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke are concerned there may not be enough scientists doing neurological research in the future to find answers to emerging health problems.

One problem is that the most rapidly growing demographics in the United States are not equally represented in STEM graduate programs. In fact, only 8 percent of STEM doctorates were earned by underrepresented and minority students in 2014.

Some health organizations have expressed growing concern that neuroscience research will be hit particularly hard by this lack of representation.

Janet Neisewander, an Arizona State University School of Life Sciences professor, has the same concern. Thus, when the National Institute of Health began funding programs focused on increasing diversity in STEM fields, she proposed such a program in the neurosciences at ASU called Workforce Inclusion in Neuroscience through Undergraduate Research Experience (WINURE).

Her idea was to create a place at the school where undergraduate students could find mentors and get into a research lab. That way, they might be inspired to go to graduate school.

“The interest may be there, but they may not see themselves as scientists,” Neisewander said. “They may start out seeing themselves as pre-med students, but if they start working in labs, they will sometimes find they really enjoy that experience.”

Support to do neuroscience research

WINURE defines “underrepresented” as ethnic minorities and first-generation college students. To increase participation in these groups, students are paid for doing research, up to 20 hours per week during the school year and 40 hours in the summer. They’re also given research and travel funds to attend national conferences.

The program offers a weekly seminar where students learn about topics to help them get into a graduate program, such as how to write an abstract, how to present their research and how to apply to graduate school. And, guest speakers talk about their career paths because, as program director Greg Powell pointed out, students may need to “see it to be it.”

“Perhaps they haven’t had exposure to a scientist they can relate to culturally. One of the nice things about the program is that we can find speakers who are good examples,” said Powell, a postdoctoral researcher with the school. “That may stimulate them to pursue neuroscience.”

Neisewander hopes students discover that a career in research can be as rewarding as a career in medicine.

“A lot of students, if they are interested in the sciences, are interested in medicine because they see that connection to helping others more easily,” Neisewander said. “We’re trying to get across to our students that research really does move the field along and feeds back into biomedical solutions to health problems, so they can see the connection there. You can make a big difference and give back to your community through research.”

ASU School of Life Sciences undergraduate Margaret Zheng samples tissues in Janet Neisewander's lab. WINURE provides funding for students to work 20 hours per week in a mentor's lab, learning skills that they will need to advance to graduate school. Photo by: Samantha Lloyd/ASU VisLab

Paired with neuroscience mentors

When students begin the WINURE program, Neisewander and Powell provide them with a list of ASU mentors that includes faculty studying neuroscience in the life sciences, psychology and speech and hearing. Mentors are also available at other institutions, such as Barrow Neurological Institute and University of Arizona College of Medicine-Phoenix.

With that mentor, students can assist with lab research and even start an individual project.

“Once they start the program, the intention is to fund them through graduation,” Neisewander said. “Mainly, we want to keep them interested in neuroscience. Then we work with them.”

Students who don’t find a good fit on the first try can even switch mentors if they like, as senior Alyssa Macomber, a double major in neuroscience and psychology, did when she joined the program. She was looking for a mentor who would provide her with experience in bench work techniques that she would need in graduate school and found that in School of Life Sciences professor Salvatore Oddo.

Macomber benefitted so much from learning lab techniques in Oddo’s lab and from advice received in the seminar that she participated in a national diversity conference and applied to several graduate schools, including ASU.

In fact, she wishes she had access to the program sooner.

“Especially if you are planning to go to graduate school, this is the program that will help,” Macomber said. “When I was a freshman, I didn’t know I wanted to graduate school, but going through the program, it’s less scary. They teach you a lot of stuff that is unknown and that you really can’t learn until you go to college.”

WINURE has five open slots for the fall 2019 semester, and all underrepresented groups interested in pursuing neuroscience research in graduate school are encouraged to apply. Applications are due on April 24 and Sept. 20.