NIH Awards Education Grant for Weill Cornell Medicine’s First Post-Baccalaureate Research Program

Students study together

The National Institute of General Medical Sciences of the National Institutes of Health has awarded Weill Cornell Medicine a $1.8 million five-year grant to fund a new post-baccalaureate research education program that aims to cultivate scientists and physician-scientists who hail from groups traditionally underrepresented in science and medicine.

Advancing Success and Persistence in Research Education, or ASPiRE, will support college graduates who hope to attend professional and graduate school. The program will train four scholars each year for the first three years, and five scholars in years four and five. The program’s duration is designed to be flexible to the individual needs of the scholars, though ideally will last 12 months. Drs. Joy Howell, Yazmin Carrasco and Genevieve Fouda will serve as principal investigators. 

“The reality is, over the course of time, applications to Ph.D. as well as M.D-Ph.D. programs have become more competitive. When these programs become more competitive, the bar for what it takes to be a qualified applicant goes up,” said Dr. Howell, assistant dean for diversity and student life, vice chair for diversity in the Department of Pediatrics and professor of clinical pediatrics at Weill Cornell Medicine.  

Program participants will receive a stipend to allow them to work as research technicians, where they will receive training and ongoing professional development. The scholars will also have the opportunity to build their academic skills and career confidence through support from an educational psychologist and tiered mentorship program. The principal investigators believe all of these components will not only make ASPiRE scholars competitive candidates for M.D.-Ph.D. and Ph.D. programs, but set them up for longitudinal career-wide success.

“There is an increased need for individuals to be exposed to research opportunities, including those that not only develop professional skills to survive, but also thrive when they're in graduate school,” said Dr. Carrasco, assistant dean for diversity and inclusion, co-director of the Weill Cornell Initiative for Maximizing Student Development and director of the ACCESS undergraduate summer program.  

Minds Coming Together 

ASPiRE is a culmination of like-minded stakeholders collaborating to solve a problem. Dr. Howell credits Dr. Sallie Permar, chair of the Department of Pediatrics at Weill Cornell Medicine, for her initial involvement after starting a pilot non-academic post-baccalaureate program in her department to mentor research technicians in preparation for medical school. The department formally launched the program in July after discussions began about a year prior.  

In developing the team, it was important that the grant principal investigators had a diverse educational background to create an enriching program for budding scientists and physician-scientists. 

“What is exciting to me is to be able to offer multi-level mentorship through this collaboration with my two co-PI's, as well as the faculty who will help populate the program,” Dr. Howell said. “This is critical to making the mentorship robust, as no one mentor can meet all of a mentee’s needs.”

Next Steps

The 12-month program will launch in phases. As such, two scholars will be onboarded in January, with two more onboarded mid-year for a complement of four scholars.   

Senior and junior faculty members, as well as near-peer mentors from Weill Cornell Graduate School of Medical Sciences and the Tri-Institutional M.D.-Ph.D. Program, will provide critical guidance to the students about the graduate and post-graduate pathways that are important for a long and successful career in science and medicine. By giving the students access to mentors at various points in their educational and professional career, the principal investigators hope students will be able to better able to plot a course from where they are to where they want to go.  

“We are working on developing customized mentorship training for mentors, because a lot of people engage in mentoring, and we really want them to understand what is expected from them to make their mentorship successful,” said Dr. Fouda, assistant dean for faculty development for Ph.D. scientist development and training in pediatrics and a professor in pediatrics. 

“We're looking for ways to collaborate with Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center by leveraging our longstanding relationship with them and synergizing our two post-baccalaureate programs,” Dr. Carrasco said. “This in turn will provide our scholars with an increase sense of belonging and enhance their network.”

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