Lab Experience: ‘SURE’ Way to Broaden Grad Student Demographics

Jul 27, 2016 / Comparative Biosciences News / General News

[Jessica Gutierrez]

The lack of diversity among biomedical professionals working in industry and academia is a problem. Dr. Jodi Flaws and Dr. Romana Nowak are taking steps to address that problem.

Dr. Flaws, a professor of comparative biosciences at the College of Veterinary Medicine, and Dr. Romana Nowak, a professor of animal sciences, launched the Summer Undergraduate Research Experience in Toxicology—or “SURE Tox,” for short—this year with a grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) and funding from the University of Illinois Graduate College.

“In biomedical sciences, we have very few underrepresented minorities; this is an attempt to get undergrads interested in pursuing graduate education in basic biomedical sciences, particularly toxicology,” said Dr. Flaws.

Through the program, seven undergraduate students from populations underrepresented in graduate study at Illinois are spending 10 weeks engaged in hands-on research activities. As stipulated by the NIEHS grant, they are focusing on how environmental exposure relates to human disease.

I enjoy being in the lab in particular. With the grad student mentor, you’re able to have one-on-one conversations and ask questions about anything.

Jessica Gutierrez, animal science major

The students are working in the laboratories of faculty members engaged in the campus’s strong toxicology program, including four from the veterinary college: Drs. Indrani Bagchi, Flaws, CheMyong Ko, and Susan Schantz. Each participant, who is either a junior or senior undergraduate, is also assigned a graduate student mentor.

Jessica Gutierrez, an animal science major at Illinois, is enthusiastic about the experience she has gained.

“I enjoy being in the lab in particular. With the grad student mentor, you’re able to have one-on-one conversations and ask questions about anything. I get feedback directly rather than through a large seminar,” Gutierrez explained. “We’re exposed to new ideas and concepts at weekly meetings where other faculty members present their research. Overall, it’s very beneficial.”

SURE Tox program participants learn to complete a hypothesis-driven research project and to present their findings to the scientific community during a poster session at the end of the program. They receive room and board, a stipend, class credit, and the opportunity to take the Graduate Record Examination, needed to apply to graduate study.

The SURE Tox program is just one of the ways the University of Illinois is committed to better equipping underrepresented students for graduate school success. We believe that a diverse community of graduate scholars strengthens creativity throughout the learning process and prepares future leaders to work within increasingly diverse and global settings.

—Emily Luce