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BU effort offers a summer of science

Program mentors minority students

Xavier University student Christina Richardson said the Boston University program has helped her “really see what I want to be and know it’s possible.’’ Xavier University student Christina Richardson said the Boston University program has helped her “really see what I want to be and know it’s possible.’’ (Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff)
By June Q. Wu
Globe Correspondent / June 25, 2010

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For $9.50 an hour, Christina Richardson nursed ailing patients — and her own bruised dreams — during the past three summers at a Louisiana nursing home.

Growing up in a community that set low expectations for her future, Richardson, a 21-year-old rising senior at Xavier University in New Orleans, says she had to protect her ambition of “being a real doctor, saving people on the brink of death,’’ not unlike the trauma physicians she watched on “ER.’’

“People just didn’t believe me — ‘You’re going to try and be a doctor?’ ’’ Richardson says, remembering the sting of the skepticism from her nursing home patients.

This summer, Richardson is working alongside PhD students who, instead of questioning her ambitions, push her beyond her comfort zone. She is conducting lab research for the first time at Boston University’s School of Medicine, which launched a program in partnership with Xavier, a historically black private college, that aims to immerse minority students in a summer of science.

Blacks and Hispanics made up only 14 percent of US graduate students studying science and engineering in the fall of 2008, according to National Science Foundation data, and the dearth of minorities in biomedical research has long troubled institutions nationwide.

Of the 204 PhD candidates enrolled at BU’s medical school last year, only seven — or 3 percent — identify themselves as black or Hispanic.

Now in its fourth week, BU’s initiative aims to address the root of the problem: By planting seeds of interest this summer, program administrators hope these 11 undergraduates will leave with research ambitions after a positive 10 weeks of lab work and mentorship.

“It’s really the only way to get into research,’’ says Esther Bullitt, an associate professor who heads the physiology and biophysics lab on the medical school campus where Richardson works. “You need to have a cohort and creating a regular pipeline where this occurs is very important.’’

Like Richardson, many of the participating students have never grown strains of e. coli bacteria or conducted DNA analyses.

As part of the all-expense-paid program, each student receives a $4,000 stipend and attends weekly career development seminars on taking the MCAT or GRE and preparing resumes.

Linda Hyman, the associate provost for graduate medical sciences who founded the program, says the low number of minorities in graduate biomedical research is because of a lack of role models.

“We wanted the students to have the opportunity to really see how they can make a difference in the long term by working on research problems,’’ Hyman said.

Qyana Griffith, 30, now entering her fifth year in the combined MD/PhD program at BU, can count the number of her fellow black PhD students on one hand.

Griffith says she has yet to take a course with a black professor.

“It’s frustrating when there aren’t other people who look like you,’’ said Griffith, a Guyanese-American with an interest in infectious diseases. “It is lonely.’’

But this summer, Griffith is fielding questions she never had a chance to ask from the 11 undergraduates as one of the program’s eight mentors.

“I think it’s about time that we had this type of program at BU,’’ Griffith said of the graduate medical sciences.

Strong mentorship at a Harvard Medical School research lab was responsible for setting BU dermatology professor Hee-Young Park, who helps oversee the new program, on her research career.

Park said BU hopes to expand the pilot program next year to include other universities.

Other local institutions, such as Harvard, MIT, and Tufts, offer similar undergraduate summer research programs. MIT, which has seen the number of underrepresented minority PhD students in its biology department jump from 6 percent in 2005 to 18 percent this year, has been recruiting an increasingly diverse group of undergraduates from other colleges to enroll in its summer program for the past six years.

Richardson plans on continuing her research, possibly on cancer and diabetes. Her grandmother was recently diagnosed with stomach cancer, and diabetes runs in her family.

“Now I can really see what I want to be and know it’s possible,’’ she said. “I had a plan, but it wasn’t as clear.’’

June Q. Wu can be reached at jwu@globe.com.

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