(JACKSON, Miss.) — The Department of Biology at Jackson State University has been awarded a $399,958 grant from the National Science Foundation that will help underrepresented students enter graduate schools and STEM careers.
The three-year multifaceted grant is called “Enhancement of Jackson State University Course-based Undergraduate Research Experience (JSU-CURE) Program in the Biological Sciences.”
Dr. Tim Turner, principal investigator and chair of the JSU Department of Biology, said, “JSU-CURE will enhance our students’ competitive advantage and, in turn, increase the pool of prospective candidates from underrepresented populations and diversify the next generation of STEM leaders.”
Turner said biology students in the College of Science, Engineering and Technology will receive hands-on research experience, and some will work alongside JSU scientists for tutoring, mentoring and, potentially, building lifelong professional relationships.
The grant also will provide (1) continuous support and guidance from the JSU-CURE Leadership Team; (2) redesigned and new courses such as bioinformatics; (3) state-of-the-art research equipment and supplies; and (4) outreach activities for students.
Turner said JSU-CURE is ideally suited for biology, which comprises the largest number of majors at JSU.
“There are numerous exciting career options awaiting biology majors in professions such as physicians, dentists, pharmacists, optometrists, physician assistants, veterinarians, nurses, chiropractors, and MD or Ph.D. scientists in various disciplines,” Turner said. Other areas, he said, include biology teachers, environmentalists and laboratory technicians.
He noted that the number of students majoring in biology concentrations is not unique to JSU. Rather, he said, the trend extends throughout the nation and the globe. “This high interest fuels an extremely competitive process for biology majors to gain entrance into professional/graduate schools after the completion of their undergraduate degree. Often, the students who have hands-on experiences conducting research in external and/or internal laboratories are able to distinguish themselves in the selection process for entry into professional institutions.”
Because of the future competitiveness, the JSU-CURE program aims to answer the call for more diverse STEM leaders by preparing students on three levels:
- Educationally: Understand and apply biological concepts; use technology to explore new fields of biology; develop relationships with mentors/advisers; gain insight into the research process; enhance problem-solving skills by applying concepts to “real life” situations; promote and encourage scientific investigation (e.g., research planning, scientific modeling and data analysis); and receive exposure to and acceptance in academic and post-graduate studies and careers
- Professionally: Increase students’ knowledge of biology; build interdepartmental collaborations and expertise; provide exposure to various research careers; help with team-building and network opportunities; and develop research and science skills
- Personally: Enhance confidence in excelling in STEM disciplines; inspire involvement in community service; develop critical, analytical and independent thinking; meet challenges and develop standards of excellence; gain scientific confidence; and interact with people from different cultures/experiences for greater global perspectives
Also, JSU-CURE will improve the biology curriculum by adding a new course in bioinformatics. The interdisciplinary science field combines biology, computer science, information engineering, mathematics and statistics. Each of these areas will allow students to critically examine, interpret and extract useful results from large amounts of raw biological data.
Turner said, “A student who is prepared to interpret, analyze, understand and evaluate large sets of data for important trends and/or develop solutions to current and future problems will be a much sought-after commodity.”
So, the grant program will recruit eight rising JSU sophomore and/or junior biology majors who will become the first cohort of CURE Scholars. In the labs, CURE Scholars will perform experiments, collect and record data and prepare oral and/or poster presentations to at least one local or national scientific conference. And, during the summer, the scholars will begin their two-year, eight-week lab research roles and be mentored by biology faculty.
Subsequently, the cohort will participate in outreach by applying their knowledge, creating educational modules and teaching middle and high school students locally and nationally. The engagement and collaborative learning is part of the program’s “Each One Teach One” concept.
In addition, scholars will work with students from the JSU Department of Journalism and Media Studies to fully produce educational videos by devising ideas and editing scripts that focus on teaching biological concepts to the next generation of STEM students.
Turner said, “By having biological subject matter created, packaged, presented and explained to impressionable students – many of whom are from underrepresented communities in STEM fields – we believe those targeted students will be inspired and motivated to pursue STEM-related careers.”
Furthermore, he said, the educational videos will be circulated to a larger audience via smartphones, SnapChat, Twitter, YouTube, video conferencing and Facebook Live.
“This student-led partnership will enhance campus and community outreach through university venues such as JSUTV, WJSU radio and the JSU Experience Magazine. The melding of expertise of students from the Departments of Biology and Journalism and Media Studies will promote interdepartmental interactions by the future leaders in their respective fields as well as enhance students’ self-confidence as they enter their professional fields,” Turner said.
Over the next five years, he said he believes the broader impact of this grant will be enhanced integration of research and education in biology. He also expects greater opportunities for students to engage in formal instruction and independent research projects along with better preparations for graduate schools and a more diverse STEM workforce.
Turner also said course materials and data developed from the JSU-CURE project will be disseminated through workshops, educational meetings, journal publications and a dedicated biology website.
He said the grant is the brainchild of biology colleague Dr. Gloria Miller, with contributions from co-principal investigators Dr. Jacqueline Stevens, Dr. Barbara Graham and LaDonnya Drummond. Also, special contributions are being provided by Dr. Elayne Hayes Anthony, chair of the Department of Journalism and Media Studies; and Chief Information Officer Dr. Deborah Dent in the Department of Information Technology.
Support is also being provided from faculty in the Department of Biology in areas such as: bioinformatics, computational biology, cell biology, toxicology, plant physiology and cancer research. Dr. Louise Jones is the external evaluator of the JSU-CURE Program.