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New Mexico State University

New Mexico State University

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NMSU program works to create a diverse field of biomedical researchers

For the past 16 years, Michael Johnson has shepherded New Mexico State University's Minority Access to Research Careers program and, more importantly for him, the many students who have successfully gone through the curriculum.

Michael Johnson flanked by Adam Gomez and Justine deGruyter in a lab.
Chemistry Professor Michael Johnson, center, works in his laboratory with Minority Access to Research Careers (MARC) students Adam Gomez, left, and Justine deGruyter. Gomez is majoring in microbiology and deGruyter is majoring in chemistry. (NMSU photo by Darren Phillips)

"You can help students achieve dreams they never thought they could shoot for," said Johnson, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry and director of the MARC program at NMSU. "Somebody just has to be there to encourage, support, and direct them."

And Johnson, in collaboration with research faculty, will continue to guide NMSU undergraduates who are committed to a career in biomedical research. For 36 years, the National Institutes of Health's National Institute of General Medical Sciences has funded New Mexico State's MARC program, which seeks to increase the number and capabilities of biomedical researchers from underrepresented groups. The main purpose of the program is to prepare undergraduate students for graduate studies in the biomedical sciences, eventually leading to a Ph.D.

As the MARC director, Johnson has to re-apply for funding every five years, and this year, he and his team were again successful. In June, they were awarded a grant worth $3.8 million that extends MARC funding until 2017. The grant will allow Johnson to award MARC fellowships to as many as 24 undergraduate students each year of the grant.

"Every five years, it's a competitive renewal and with all the budget cuts across all agencies this year we were worried," Johnson said. "The competition has increased as money has decreased. But we're fortunate that the NMSU faculty, staff and students helped to put together a great proposal."

The MARC program at NMSU has come a long way since it was first funded in 1977. That first grant brought the university $342,000. With every grant renewal, the amount NMSU received has grown. To date, MARC has brought $15 million to NMSU, on which $12 million Johnson has been the principal investigator.

The number of students benefitting from the MARC program has grown as well, from six in 1977 to 24 each year for the 2012-2017 grant period. MARC has served 300 NMSU students in its 36 years, sending students to prestigious graduate schools at Harvard, Yale, Cornell, the Mayo Clinic, the Scripts Institute and many more.

"NMSU is dedicated to undergraduate research at a level not found in a lot of other institutions. Our position as a Carnegie research school, combined with our dedication to undergraduate students, allows NMSU to graduate top-quality students," Johnson said. "It is important to note that our students are as competitive, if not more competitive, than students from bigger schools. For example, we've sent five of our MARC students to graduate school at Harvard and they have found themselves well prepared to succeed."

A MARC and NMSU alumnus, Eduardo Davila, is now an associate professor at the University of Maryland Marlene and Stewart Greenebaum Cancer Center in Baltimore. He received his Bachelor of Science in chemistry and biochemistry from NMSU in 1998. In 2002, he went on to earn his Ph.D. in rheumatoid immunology and transplantation immunology from the Mayo Clinic Graduate School of Medicine in Rochester, Minn. Davila credits NMSU and the MARC program with his success.

"The 'MARC experience' fueled my interest in science, and equally important, in mentoring students and faculty alike," Davila said. "I am certain many other participants would agree that our active participation in the MARC program served as a gateway to successful careers in science."

Under MARC requirements, the program is open to entering juniors with a 3.0 grade point average who have expressed a commitment to pursue post-graduate biomedical education and research. The fellowships must be renewed during the senior year following a review of the student's progress.

"Students must expressly want to go onto a Ph.D. program and biomedical research," Johnson said. "We are tasked by NIH to build the biomedical research infrastructure, not the medical infrastructure."

MARC is open to students majoring in agronomy, animal science, biochemistry, bioinformatics, biology, chemistry, environmental science, horticulture, microbiology, molecular biology, physics, and range science or wildlife science.

Once in the program, the students conduct research in the aforementioned fields with an NMSU research professor. During the summer between their junior and senior years, MARC students take part in an eight-to-10 week research experience at an off-campus research site. MARC supports the students financially during this time and pays travel expenses to and from the host institution.

Students selected for the MARC program receive a monthly stipend of $969, and their in-state tuition and student health services are paid for, as well. In addition, all the students are required to take the Graduate Record Examination. Students also are required to take an Honors College course to help prepare them for graduate school.

With the grant money, Johnson has worked with faculty from other departments at NMSU to create innovative courses for all students on campus. During the last five-year period that ended this year, classes looking at the business side and ethics of biomedical research were developed. These were taught in the College of Business by Sherry Mills, professor of accounting and information systems; and the College of Arts and Sciences by Danny Scoccia, head of the philosophy department. The business of biomedical class proved so effective that it has since been adapted as a course for Master of Arts students in the biology department.

"Working with other departments and colleges allows MARC to have an impact on the whole campus," Johnson said. "This means that MARC can help all NMSU students and not just those in the MARC program."

For the upcoming five-year period, the MARC program will be introducing new classes and summer workshops for NMSU students in ethics, toxicology and communications.

"We're actually the first university that I know of that will offer a communications course specifically tailored for undergrads in the sciences," Johnson said. "Communications Assistant Professor Greg Armfield will teach them the skills to stand in front of a group and discuss their work."

Biochemistry assistant professors Aaron Rowland and Kevin Houston will be offering the new courses in toxicology.

"Toxicology is a special facet of the NMSU undergraduate education," Johnson said. "This topic is generally taught at the graduate level. At NMSU we offer undergraduate toxicology courses and experiences not found at most schools. MARC will help expand this aspect of NMSU."

Another valuable course is an introduction to biomedical research conducted through the Honors College. The new grant will allow MARC to continue offering the course, which provides students with an opportunity to meet with graduate school recruiters and visiting scientists. It also guides students through the process of applying and interviewing for graduate schools.

"It brings a holistic approach to preparing for and getting into graduate school, especially aiding students to make it through the application maze," Johnson said. "This has become critical over the last three years because of the increased competition to get into graduate schools."

For Johnson, helping his MARC students succeed is the best part of his job.

"I am looking forward to the next five years," Johnson said. "We have a lot of new programs to put in place, students to prepare and faculty to interact with. It promises to be a wonderful challenge for all of us involved in MARC."