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04/21/2015: Participants in the NMSU Building Research Achievement in Neuroscience (BRAiN) program observe a gait analysis demonstration in the Reduced Gravity and Biomechanics (RGB) lab at Jett Hall. BRAiN program director and principal investigator Elba Serrano, center, will turn over her program responsibilities to chemistry professor Barbara Lyons, second from right. Kinesiology professor Robert Wood, far right, helped with the demonstration along with undergraduate BRAiN program scholars. (Photo by Darren Phillips)

$2.3m grant renewed, preps NMSU students for grad school

A five-year partnership between New Mexico State University and the University of Colorado Denver will continue preparing undergraduates in the Rocky Mountain and Southwest region for graduate careers in neuroscience research, thanks to a $2.3 million grant renewal from the National Institutes of Health. NMSU was awarded a $700,000 subcontract to form a consortium with UC Denver.

“It’s been phenomenal. About 20 students have participated in the NMSU program and 100 percent of the graduating NMSU students have gone on to graduate school. Over half have entered Ph.D. programs and some are in graduate training to become physicians and dentists,” said Elba Serrano, NMSU Regents Professor in biology in the College of Arts and Sciences. Serrano co-wrote the original grant with Diego Restrepo, professor at UC Denver Anshutz Medical Campus.”

The Building Research Achievement in Neuroscience (BRAiN) program, established by the two universities in 2010 is part of the NIH initiative, Blueprint for Enhancing Neuroscience Diversity through Undergraduate Research Education Experiences. BP-ENDURE is part of the extensive NIH Blueprint for Neuroscience Research, a cooperative effort among 16 NIH institutes, centers and offices that support neuroscience research.

Recent NMSU graduate Kathryn Sanchez, was involved in the BRAiN program from 2013 to 2015.

“My participation in BRAiN has made a world of difference throughout my undergraduate career,” Sanchez said. “In particular, we learned the impact that science has on society. It is a tool that can be used to improve lives, and often the most important discoveries begin at the bench.”

As part of the BRAiN program, undergraduates at each university take a weekly seminar during the school year, studying various neuroscience topics and conducting research at their campus. Students will also have the opportunity to attend a neuroscience conference, meeting different members of the scientific community and examining different neuroscience practices.

“The combination of small size cohorts and other aspects of the program such as the summer University of Colorado Denver mentored experience and dynamic mentors are part of what made the first grant cycle successful. Tim Wright and Graciela Unguez were also instrumental for program success through their efforts as associate directors during the early formative years of the program,” Serrano said. “Most of all, the BRAiN students are very talented and have a strong work ethic. The majority are Pell Grantees and the first in their family to complete a college degree.”

Undergraduates at both universities benefit not only from the research experience but also from mentoring, seminars and journal clubs. The program aims to bridge the neuroscience research participation gap by offering undergraduate research opportunities to diverse groups of students, which include those from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups; individuals with disabilities and those from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.

During the summer, undergraduates participate in eight-week paid research internships at the University of Colorado Denver School of Medicine.

“Through BRAiN I have been able to network with others, and I have learned the importance of scientific communication,” said Sanchez. “As a result, I have been given the necessary tools to succeed in the dissemination of my research.”

“I plan to pursue a Ph.D. in Biology at Georgetown University. This will allow me to better communicate with both scientists and the general public as I transition into science policy after my Ph.D.”

Under the grant renewal, Barbara Lyons, associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry will take over duties as the principal investigator while Serrano’s role will be to direct neuroscience research education by offering workshops that build skills in written and oral scientific communication, quantitative analysis, and neuroethics.

Sondra Bland, psychology assistant professor at UC Denver-Downtown, and Diego Restrepo, professor of cell and developmental biology at UC Denver Anshutz Medical Campus, will work with Lyons at NMSU as co-principal investigators in the renewal administrative leadership team.

“Dr. Lyons is currently the program director for the National Institutes of Health ‘Bridges to the Baccalaureate’ Program,” said Serrano. “That’s a unique perspective her leadership will bring.”

Throughout the program, students will be assigned to a research mentor from each university to give them added support, while keeping faculty in Colorado and New Mexico connected. In addition to Serrano and Lyons, other NMSU faculty mentors during the first five years include: Michael Hout, psychology assistant professor; Mary Alice Scott, anthropology assistant professor; Erik Yukl, chemistry and biochemistry assistant professor; Reza Foudazi, chemical engineering assistant professor; Jennifer Fabre, kinesiology assistant professor; William Maio, chemistry and biochemistry assistant professor; Karen Mabry, biology associate professor; Timothy Wright, biology associate professor, Jessica Houston, chemical engineering associate professor; Igor Sevastianov, mechanical engineering professor; Graciela Unguez, biology professor; Robert Wood, kinesiology professor; Boris Kiefer, physics professor.

“I think the reason the grant was renewed is because we recruited talented students and strong mentors who are expert scientists,” Serrano said. “We delivered the expected outcomes. It’s a wonderful program.”

For more information on this program, visit: http://brain.nmsu.edu/ or their Facebook page for BRAiN Training-UCD & NMSU.

Author:  Minerva Baumann – NMSU

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