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NMSU programs spark minority Ph.D.s in science

Twenty minority scientists who got their start at New Mexico State University earned Ph.D.s in science in universities across the country during the recent academic year. Cesear Corona, a graduate of Gadsden High School, is representative of this distinguished group of scholars.

Cesear Corona says the Minority Access to Research Careers program is invaluable. (NMSU photo by Darren Phillips)

Corona credits his father - whom he described as a self-made man - with insisting that his children go to college.

"He said he was successful but lucky, and as a farmer he had learned a lot in his life. But he said, 'I don't want you guys to be in a situation where you have to worry about the next phase of your lives.'"

Corona chose to attend NMSU because it was close to home. At first he studied sports medicine, and then switched to pre-veterinary medicine. But after visiting an NMSU organic synthesis lab with a peer, he knew what he wanted to do.

Corona noted, "I said 'This is it! It's this or nothing!'"

He was directed toward a program that helped students like himself become part of NMSU's research effort, and he met Professor Jeffrey Arterburn through that program, the Minority Access to Research Careers.

"It's been the greatest experience of my life," Corona said. "I wanted to work with him because of his passion and enthusiasm for the work. It's infectious. It's seven years later and I'm still in his lab."

Only now, Corona is no longer an undergrad. He's getting his Ph.D. and has helped Arterburn, a professor of organic chemistry in the College of Arts and Sciences, with groundbreaking research on estrogen receptors.

"The MARC program is invaluable," Corona said. "There is a lot of opportunity here for research, but without MARC and funding for undergraduates to gain that experience, none of it would happen. We have former students doing research at Johns Hopkins and at Pfizer."

Biochemistry Professor Glenn Kuehn called the number of current minority Ph.D. candidates who came through NMSU "phenomenal," adding that "all but one entered the pipeline through the university's MARC or MBRS/RISE programs."

"These figures speak volumes," Kuehn said. "It means three things: Students find the support and the environment at NMSU needed to succeed; a number of science faculty at the university are outstanding mentors who understand diverse backgrounds and cultures; and continued solid external support from the National Institutes of Health who recognized 32 years ago that NMSU would be a good place to invest to produce minority science graduates. We stand out in the ultimate product."

Over the past three decades, NIH has assisted the university in its goal to encourage the study of science among minority students. That has meant between $40 and $50 million over the years.

The National Institute of General Medical Sciences established the Minority Access to Research Careers in 1975 to increase the numbers of underrepresented minorities in biomedical and behavioral sciences and to diversify the research workforce. Funded at NMSU since 1977, the program has helped students work on summer research at places such as Harvard, the Mayo clinic, the NIH and Johns Hopkins.

RISE or the Research Initiative for Scientific Enhancement is another program meant to help students earn degrees in the sciences. It began five years ago with a $7.9 million, four-year grant from NIH. RISE is an outgrowth of the Minority Biomedical Research Support, or MBRS program established in 1974 with NIH funding. From 1974 to February 2000, MBRS helped 404 minority students earn science degrees, including 60 doctoral graduates who identified New Mexico State as their baccalaureate institution. In 2000, the NIH divided MBRS into two programs: Support of Continuous Research Excellence or SCORE, which provides funding for scientific research, and RISE, which provides help directly to students.