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Multi-million-dollar grant aims to bring more minorities into biomedical research

Modern science meets age-old remedies at New Mexico State University this summer in a month-long workshop on medicinal plants of the Southwest.


Students in the workshop will learn how to identify medicinal plants, how to make extracts of the chemical compounds within the plants and how to analyze those extracts. And while the information they collect will be valuable in itself, the main objective of the workshop is to attract at least some of the students into a life of science, said NMSU professors Marvin Bernstein and Mary O'Connell.

"We hope a lot of them will get excited about it," said Bernstein, a biologist and director of NMSU's RISE (Research Initiative for Scientific Enhancement) program, funded by the National Institutes of Health. RISE is the student-support component of the NIH's Minority Biomedical Research Support (MBRS) program, designed to draw minority students into research careers in biomedicine and related fields.

NMSU, which has a 25-year record of successfully preparing minority researchers in the MBRS program, recently was awarded its largest NIH grants ever. Funding through the RISE program is expected to total more than $7 million over the next four years. More than $5 million is anticipated over the same time period through the SCORE (Support for Continuous Research Excellence) component of MBRS, which funds outstanding faculty research at universities with large minority enrollments.

Like other parts of NMSU's RISE program, O'Connell's workshop is aimed primarily at Hispanic, Native American and African American students -- because those groups are under- represented in biomedical research -- but it is not exclusive to minority students.

Up to 30 students can participate in the July 10-Aug. 4 workshop. Undergraduate students from NMSU or other schools are eligible to apply, and so are community college students, recent high school graduates and those who will be high school seniors in the fall, if they have had high school biology, chemistry or physics. O'Connell, a professor of agronomy and horticulture, said a few NMSU undergraduate students will continue to work on the medicinal plant research through the academic year.

The workshop is one of several additions to NMSU's MBRS program made possible by the increased level of funding from the NIH. The number of undergraduate students and graduate research assistants supported by the program will more than double, Bernstein said.

Undergraduates accepted into the RISE program work closely with faculty mentors on individual research projects. They work full time on research during the summer and 15 to 20 hours per week during the academic year, earning an hourly wage for their efforts.

"We're not talking about dishwashing jobs or cage cleaning," Bernstein said. "These students are involved from the planning to the data analysis. We want them to get the full experience. They usually are present at the 'moment of discovery' -- that divine experience that keeps us all coming back for more."

Graduate assistants in the RISE program receive stipends of nearly $16,000 a year.

With the expanded NIH funding, Bernstein said, the chemistry department will be able to offer on a continuing basis a special course developed to help students pass organic chemistry, a formidable hurdle for many science majors. "The flunk rate in organic chemistry -- the D and F rate, that is -- has been something over 50 percent," Bernstein said.

When a supplemental course was offered on a trial basis recently to students taking organic chemistry, "the D and F rate fell below 20 percent," he said. "Now we have the funds through RISE to keep that program going."

NMSU's Center for Learning Assistance will be involved in the RISE program by offering workshops aimed at improving students' performance on the Graduate Record Examination, required for entrance to graduate schools. To help prepare students for graduate assistantships, workshops on teaching will be offered.

Many of the undergraduates in the program have opportunities to present research results at scientific conferences, and they receive training in that as well, Bernstein said. "Our objective is that when it comes time for them to apply for graduate school, they will have all the skills they need," he said.

Biochemistry professor Glenn Kuehn, who administers NMSU's SCORE program, said the university has had one of the nation's most successful MBRS programs.

"As of January, 366 minority students have participated in our program over a 25-year period," Kuehn said. "Ninety-six percent of them completed the degree they were working toward here," including bachelor's and graduate degrees in fields like biology, biochemistry, microbiology, plant science, chemistry, animal science and molecular biology.

Of those who completed bachelor's degrees, 81 percent advanced to graduate or professional schools, he said -- 158 went to graduate school in the biomedical sciences, 99 enrolled in medical schools, 55 entered professional fields like veterinary medicine, pharmacy and medical technology, and eight went to dental school.

Sixty-two of the students who went to graduate school have completed doctorates, Kuehn said -- five American Indian students, 12 African-Americans and 45 Hispanics.

SIDEBAR:

Application deadline July 3 for medicinal plant workshop

Students interested in participating in the workshop on medicinal plants should apply by July 3. For more information contact Mary O'Connell at (505) 646-5172 or moconnel@nmsu.edu, or her research assistant, Andrea Medina, at (505) 646-5169.

For information on NMSU's RISE program, contact Marvin Bernstein at (505) 646-3823 or mbernste@nmsu.edu.

Karl Hill
June 20, 2000