Virginia Tech will become an important stepping stone for up to seven students from groups under-represented in the sciences each year who want to pursue a doctorate in biomedical engineering or biomedical and behavioral sciences, thanks to $2.7 million in funding from two federal agencies.

Ed Smith, associate professor in the university's department of animal and poultry sciences, and other professors at Virginia Tech, received a five-year $2.7 million grant from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences and the National Human Genome Research Institute. The funds will be used to create Virginia Tech Post-Baccalaureate Research Education Program, or VT-PREP.

The opportunity came at just the right time for one such prospective student, Candace Best, who earned a bachelor's degree in psychology from Hampton University in the spring. A difficult job market caused several university job prospects to disappear, and with plans to pursue a doctorate in clinical psychology, she was running out of ideas on how to prepare for graduate school when she received a call about the new Virginia Tech program.

"I feel I'm well prepared academically, but I don't have the research background that I'd like to have," said the Basking Ridge, N.J., resident. "It's fairly easy to get the clinical experience, but it's the research aspect that I feel I need. This is working perfectly for me."

Best has applied for the program and hopes to be one of the participants in the program starting in January.

Janet Rankin, who is leading the effort to establish a new university Institute for Biomedical and Public Health Sciences and is chair of the advisory committee for the program Best hopes to enter, said the Hampton University graduate illustrates the type of students the program is designed to help.

"This program is for people with very high potential, students who are very close to the credentials they need to pursue graduate studies, and put them in a mentored situation to better prepare them," Rankin said. "We have very talented applicants. Now, it's a matter of matching students with professors in their interest areas who are available to serve as mentors."

VT-PREP will be co-directed by Larry Moore, professor emeritus in the department of plant pathology, physiology, and weed science. It is designed to support under-represented students who have completed their undergraduate or master's degree and are interested in obtaining a doctorate either in biomedical engineering or in the biomedical and behavioral sciences. While the NIH funds are designed for students in underrepresented groups, strong applicants from any race or ethnicity will be considered.

The funding provides for a one- or two-year transition period between undergraduate and graduate school for seven students annually. The positions will be funded at a salary of $21,000. The grant also provides for travel to meetings and workshops to further enrich the VT-PREP scholars. The scholars will also be allowed to take one or two undergraduate or graduate level courses per year. Each student will also be supported to take a GRE preparation course.

The program is a collaborative effort of about 30 Virginia Tech faculty members from a variety of disciplines across the university who will serve as the research mentors. Students participating in the program will provide faculty members with an extra pair of hands in their labs to conduct research.

Qualified applicants must have a grade point average of at least 2.5, must have received an undergraduate degree within the past three years, and must agree to commit to a one- to two-year program designed to alleviate any academic or research deficiencies that may limit their acceptance into a graduate program. Applicants will be required to apply to Ph.D. graduate programs at the conclusion of the program. They will work with mentors of their choice as faculty apprentices on a specific project. Any graduate level coursework completed with a grade of B or better during this program, may be used as credit once the student is accepted into a Virginia Tech program.

"Federal programs, such as this one, allow Virginia Tech to create a continuum of programs and support activities, from pre-college to the doctorate, helping us achieve a diverse and well-prepared student body at all levels," said Mark McNamee, university provost. "I've seen this kind of program at my former institution and know that an intensive research experience with a faculty mentor can be a life-changing opportunity for students. This is a major grant obtained by the efforts of our faculty. I am delighted to have VT-PREP join the Multicultural Academic Opportunities Program (MAOP) family of university programs now housed under the Provost's Office."

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