Better prepared, thanks to UGA PREP

By Tara Bracken

When Kiara Miller graduated from Savannah State University in 2014, she asked herself the question facing every recent graduate: “Now what?” Summers spent as an undergraduate researcher at the National Institute on Drug Abuse and at the University of Wisconsin—Madison had kindled in her a passion for neurobiology, and Miller knew she was destined for a career in biomedical research. In order to follow that passion, however, she needed those few letters after her name that would distinguish her as one of the best and brightest in the field: PhD. 

As a bright, young African-American woman and the first in her family to pursue a traditional higher-level education, Miller had just joined the legions of underrepresented students who hit a barrier during the transition from undergraduate- to graduate-level Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education. Though Miller had proven herself an ambitious and driven student, she did not fit the mold of an ideal graduate school applicant and the idea of entering a graduate program immediately was daunting. “I knew I still wanted to do research, but I wasn’t ready to go straight from undergraduate to a full graduate program,” said Miller. “I felt like it would be too big of a change just then.” 

The obstacles facing Miller and other underrepresented students have not gone unnoticed. In 2014, Julie Moore, PhD, professor and assistant department head of the CVM’s Department of Infectious Diseases, was awarded a grant from the National Institutes of Health to establish a Postbaccalaureate Research Education Program, nicknamed “PREP,” at the University of Georgia. “PREP is a program that was designed in response to the recognition that the upper echelons of the biomedical research community are very monolithic,” said Moore, who also serves as the program’s director. “While involvement of a diverse population in STEM education at the baccalaureate level has grown substantially, there seems to be a glass ceiling. Where diversity is really falling down is at the level of entrance into graduate programs.”

Though numbers of minority students and students with disabilities earning STEM degrees have increased in the last few decades, significant obstacles to entering a career in these fields continue to thin their ranks relative to their better-represented peers. According to a 2011 report by the National Academy of Sciences, despite making up 26 percent of enrolled undergraduate students in the United States, underrepresented minorities comprise only 5.4 percent of STEM doctorates awarded annually and just 8 percent of STEM professionals working at four-year colleges and universities. 

PREP was established in an effort to increase those numbers and promote diversity in STEM graduate programs. Upon discovering PREP, Moore knew that the CVM was an ideal college to join the existing 33 PREP programs across the country. “At the CVM, we have such a strong focus on infectious diseases,” said Moore. “We felt that we could draw on our broad expertise and strong research programs, and really make use of the already well-established and mature training environment here.” Though eligibility to serve as a PREP mentor is open to professors throughout UGA, the CVM faculty’s response to PREP was particularly enthusiastic. “All of the faculty that I reached out to expressed interest in being a part of the program,” recalled Moore, “and the majority who have taken scholars have been in the College.” 

UGA PREP scholars come from a variety of backgrounds and degrees of research experience. Several are first generation college graduates, others are recent U.S. permanent residents or citizens, and many come from disadvantaged families. The one thing they all have in common is a passion for biomedical research. Julie Range, PREP at UGA’s program coordinator, recalls one student whose graduate school eligibility suffered as a result of having to work several jobs through college to support her mother and siblings. “If she didn’t have this drive for science and for research,” recounts Range, “if she didn’t receive this additional training, she may easily have had to go a different way.” PREP hopes to help nurture such talented students into competitive STEM graduate program applicants by providing a challenging but supportive training environment.

PREP at UGA is a multifaceted program with research training at its core. “We get them into a research environment as early as possible so they have time—almost a full year—to gain expertise in a particular project and bring it to the point where, optimally, they will gain a first author publication,” explained Moore. The scholars also are encouraged to present their research projects at regional, national or international-level meetings in order to develop experience in communicating data and networking with other researchers.

The program is also designed to counteract disparities in admissions counseling students from disadvantaged backgrounds receive. Scholars are enrolled in a preparatory course for the Graduate Record Examinations, or GRE, the standardized test required for admission to most graduate programs in the United States. Range and Moore help scholars identify suitable graduate programs and develop compelling applications. PREP even requires scholars to produce short videos telling their stories and explaining their research projects, which are then provided to admissions committees. “[Programs like PREP] level the playing field,” said Miller, an alumna of PREP’s first graduating class who is entering her second year  at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, where she is enrolled in their  neuroscience PhD program. “They let people who normally wouldn’t have such a broad or advanced training get that before they take on applying to graduate school, which can be overwhelming.”

In the end, however, what makes PREP such an enriching experience is that it is not designed to simply groom scholars into attractive application candidates and push them out the door. While developing the program, Moore and Range recognized that for scholars to truly thrive in top STEM PhD programs, they need to be prepared not only intellectually, but also emotionally and psychologically, for the challenges a graduate student faces. Thus, scholars receive coaching on all aspects of the graduate school experience in addition to their intensive research training. 

At the beginning of the program, students are assigned a faculty mentor to direct their project as well as a research mentor—a graduate student who guides their daily experience in the lab and provides the scholar with the inside scoop on the life of a graduate student. “By forming that pair,” Moore explained, “the scholar experiences everything that graduate student does, and we believe that exposure will prepare the scholar for what they can expect from graduate school.” This interaction, in conjunction with an opportunity to take a light load of first-year graduate level courses, gives scholars a chance to live the life of a graduate student in a relatively low-pressure setting, demystifying the graduate school experience while building confidence in their ability to handle the heavy work load a PhD program entails. Range recalls one scholar, now a PhD student in one of the top Immunology and Infectious Disease programs in the country, wrote Moore and Range a note describing the self-assurance PREP helped her find. “She was appreciative that she finally believed in herself—we believed in her and she now has faith in herself.”

Miller also looks back on both of her mentors as playing a significant role in her adjustment to life as a STEM researcher. “Julie [Moore, Miller’s faculty mentor] let me be very independent very early on, so that really helped get my footing for how it was about to be—how it is now,” Miller said. “And my grad student mentor was awesome. She taught me everything I needed to know and asked questions to make sure I actually understood what I was doing and why. She showed me it’s one thing to learn a technique, but it’s better to understand why you’re doing it and that’s really going to help me later on.” 

With just its second class graduating this May, the PREP program has already achieved remarkable success. Every PREP scholar to date has been accepted to a top graduate program with one exception, who chose to defer in order to apply to a joint MD/PhD program during the next application cycle. Range is unabashedly proud of the scholars’ growth and achievement over the course of a year. “They’ve grown completely,” she said. “They’re more confident in the lab, more comfortable with everything they’ve done.” Given the program’s current success and the recent allocation of funds from the UGA Office of the Vice President for Research to support a scholar exclusively on institutional funding, PREP’s future looks bright. Moore hopes that with continued interest, the program may even be able to create a spot reserved for scholars interested in pursuing a joint DVM/PhD.

In her time as a graduate student, Miller has seen first-hand the success of programs like PREP extending beyond the CVM. Though much remains to be done, she says she has seen improved representation of minority, disadvantaged and disabled students in STEM graduate programs. “Opportunities are getting better, a lot better, because there are these programs,” she said, “but a lot of graduate schools just don’t have those types of programs. We were lucky to have one at UGA.”   

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