As a young child growing up in Puerto Rico, Katrina Colucci-Chang knew she wanted to pursue a career in the sciences.

“My dream job is to work for the federal government. I want a position in a national research lab,” said Colucci-Chang, a first-year Virginia Tech a graduate student in biomedical engineering.

Colucci-Chang’s peer Chris Garcia is equally clear about his goals. Garcia plans to pursue an industry research position.

“I would like to work for a pharmaceutical company,” said Garcia, who is also a first-year graduate student from Twain Harte, California, studying chemistry. The doctoral student aspires to discover new drugs to cure a host of diseases.

Although Colucci-Chang is focused on bioengineering with a specialty in heart arrhythmia while Garcia is a chemist, both are realizing their dreams thanks to an innovative trans-disciplinary training program in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

The students are part of the Initiative for Maximizing Student Development (IMSD) program, which is funded by NIGMS in National Institutes of Health. The training program is designed to increase the number of students from underrepresented groups who wish to pursue careers in biomedical science. At Virginia Tech, the IMSD program is a cross-disciplinary partnership with departments and programs across the university. Colucci-Chang is in the College of Engineering and Garcia is in the College of Science.

The $2.3 million program is now in its third cycle at Virginia Tech. To date, 85 percent of IMSD alumni from the pre-doctoral program have received their doctorate degrees and are pursuing a postdoc or a position at a research 1 university or in industry. An impressive 70 percent of the undergraduates who participate in the IMSD pre-baccalaureate program are in Ph.D. programs at institutions including Brown, Cal Tech, Duke, NC State, Penn, and Stanford.

IMSD, and its sister program PREP, were the first NIH Research Education training grants at Virginia Tech. Ed Smith, a professor Department of Animal and Poultry Sciences, leads the program with Zachary Mackey, an assistant professor in the Department of Biochemistry. David Bevan, who is retiring, previously ran the program.

“I want to build on the community-centered approach to graduate training. In terms of underrepresented minorities, community is an important factor for development and mentorship,” said Mackey. “If you are the first person in your family to go to college or the only underrepresented minority in your program, having a community to fall back on to provide support can go a long way in alleviating some of the stress and feeling of isolation that our students often confront.”

IMSD emphasizes community, mentoring, and networking as fundamental to becoming a successful undergraduate and graduate student. Students participate in a laboratory-training component during the summer for 40-hours per week, and laboratory research projects during the academic year for 20-hours per week.

What makes IMSD unique are hands-on, bench research experiences under the supervision of a principal investigator, enhancement programs, faculty and peer mentoring, and enrichment activities such as group seminars, and travel to scientific meetings. During the rotational phase, students are encouraged to explore a broad range of laboratories in their field of interests. Several scholars have, for instance, rotated with multiple faculty mentors in the Department of Psychology.

The idea behind this approach is to expand the students’ research experience and knowledge base while helping them to develop skill sets that include oral and written communications, grant writing, and other competencies that will aid them in their research careers. NIH’s vision for the program is to develop a diverse research and scientific workforce in the biomedical and behavioral sciences.

The current NIH IMSD cohort includes 22 undergraduate and graduate students from institutions including George Mason University, Florida International University, Columbia College, the University of Virginia, Purdue, Cal State, and Arizona State. They are studying subjects as diverse as computational biology, chemistry, engineering, dairy science, animal science, and more. 

Katrina Colucci-Chang is learning about targeted cancer discrimination by inserting electric currents into corrupted cells to destroy them. Through the IMSD program, she is exploring how biomedical engineering is applied across different disciplines.

Katrina Colucci-Chang is learning about targeted cancer discrimination by inserting electric currents into corrupted cells to destroy them. Through the IMSD program, she is exploring how biomedical engineering is applied across different disciplines.
Katrina Colucci-Chang is learning about targeted cancer discrimination by inserting electric currents into corrupted cells to destroy them. Through the IMSD program, she is exploring how biomedical engineering is applied across different disciplines.

“A lot of engineering schools are lacking rotational programs,” said Colucci-Chang. “This aspect of IMSD drew me to Virginia Tech. I wanted to go to different labs to see what I could do, and to merge that knowledge into my thesis.”

The scholar, whose family moved from Mayagüez to Washington, D.C. several years ago, is currently working with Rafael Davalos, a professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering and Mechanics. She is learning about targeted cancer discrimination by inserting electric currents into corrupted cells to destroy them.

“I went to graduate school to explore bigger opportunities,” said Colucci-Chang, who enjoys dancing and swimming in her free time. “Here, I can see how biomedical engineering is applied across different disciplines. It has opened up new worlds.”

According to Mackey, many minorities who are interested in basic science Ph.D. programs have not had a mentor or role model to offer them even the most basic career advice.

“In some cases it’s mind blowing to realize that one can get a doctorate without having to first obtain a master’s degree,” said Mackey, who hosts bi-weekly forums that allow the students to share experiences and to hear from alumni who have been trailblazers in their fields. “Hearing how others have navigated and learned about resources, networks, and mentors to help them achieve their success is something that helps everyone. It’s so important to have people to validate you, and to help point students to resources or provide other sources of support.”

Mackey is particularly proud that IMSD goes beyond providing students with a stipend. He believes in giving students tools to help them succeed, and providing them with lifelong mentorship. To this end, he maintains close connections with many of the program’s alumni even those who preceded his involvement with IMSD, including Anjolii Diaz, a recent graduate.

Diaz, now an assistant professor in the Department of Psychological Science at Ball State University, praised the program for its role in launching her career and for the strong sense of community Mackey and Smith have established.

“Overall, IMSD offered me a safe place where I could speak openly about concerns or difficulties and know that others were dealing with similar issues and could offer me insights or suggestions to help me through it,” said Diaz. “Five years later, I still have an amazing working relationship with my mentor. I really wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for Martha Ann Bells’ (professor, Department of Psychology) amazing mentorship and continued guidance.”

Each year, IMSD faculty and students from universities in the region gather for the Mid-Atlantic Prep Research Symposium. The symposium, which was cofounded by Virginia Tech and University of North Carolina, affords students the opportunity to network with leaders in a variety of scientific fields, and to share their own research with peers from member institutions. Diaz was given the opportunity to organize the first MAPRS conference.

Alumna Sarah Sams, who was an undergraduate IMSD scholar, underscored the importance of MAPRS and other conferences made possible by the program. 

“The resources and networking opportunities were invaluable to my graduate school preparation and acceptance,” said Sams. “Networking at undergraduate research conferences led me to summer research opportunities which ultimately led me to graduate school. I might not have had the funding, or even heard about these conferences had it not been for IMSD.”

Sams is now pursuing her doctorate in neurobiology at Caltech.

Cal State graduate Chris Garcia was raised in the seat of the Sierra Nevada Mountains near Yosemite National Park and earned his bachelor’s degree in chemistry. The outdoor adventurer and motorcycle enthusiast liked Virginia Tech because of the collaborative spirit and the connections afforded by the IMSD program.

“I was looking for a lab group that I would enjoy working with,” said Garcia. “I was really attracted to Dr. Webster Santos’ work in the Department of Chemistry in the College of Science. Interacting with him and with his group really drew me. I come from a team background, so working with a cohesive group that communicates well was really important to me.”

Although other schools offered Garcia fellowships, the Virginia Tech program allowed him to concentrate on his research and studies without having to teach.

“It made Virginia Tech much more competitive with other universities who offered stipends and fellowships,” said Garcia.

Garcia was paired with a peer mentor in the Department of Psychology.

“I think they match you with someone in a different discipline to allow you to vent when you need to,” he said with a smile. “They are unconnected from your work, which makes them a nice outlet. They provide a different perspective.”

Most graduate students spend between four and five years in the IMSD program. They receive $80,000 in total, which is distributed over four years.

What students ultimately receive is not just an impressive degree or a prestigious position. It is the realization of a long-held dream — a dream whose fruition requires hard work, a supportive community, financial backing, and an excellent education.

-          Written by Amy Painter