UAlbany Receives $2M NIH Grant to Address Diversity in Biomedical Research Workforce

A pair of hands can be seen holding a slide topped with tiny materials as it glows beneath an orb of light coming from a microscope.
A student researcher conducts laboratory work in the Life Sciences building at UAlbany.

By Bethany Bump

ALBANY, N.Y. (April 27, 2023) — The University at Albany has been awarded a $2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to establish “MARC at UAlbany,” a program that helps increase diversity in the biomedical research workforce by preparing undergraduate students for graduate degree programs that lead to careers in the field.  

“Entering the position of dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, the vision was to seek funding that would enhance the College’s ability to prepare students for their future careers and to secure much needed resources. This was a College-based vision as we sought to enhance training opportunities for our students,” said Jeanette Altarriba, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and lead program director for the MARC initiative.

The biomedical research field has a well-documented diversity challenge among its workforce, particularly when it comes to adequate representation among women, and Black and Hispanic individuals.

The Maximizing Access to Research Careers (MARC) program aims to address this lack of diversity early in the college-to-career pipeline. The program will recruit rising juniors and seniors from groups traditionally underrepresented in biomedical research careers, and pair them with faculty mentors and offer hands-on research and professional development opportunities designed to ready them for a research-focused graduate degree program in biomedical sciences.

“Having that diversity is important for many reasons,” said Julia Hormes, one of the program directors and associate dean for Faculty Affairs and Research in the College of Arts and Sciences. “Obviously it’s simply the right thing to do, but there’s also some really interesting data that show more diverse teams of researchers just do better science. Diversity is associated with more innovation, more creativity and it drives excellence in research.”

The award covers a five-year period and is renewable. Funds will largely go toward offsetting student-related costs, such as stipends, tuition, fees and conference attendance.

UAlbany applied for the grant last spring, noting in its application that the program leverages the University’s highly diverse undergraduate student body and its status as an R1 “very highly research active” university. About 40 percent of UAlbany undergraduates identify with historically underrepresented groups, making it one of the most diverse public research institutions in the nation.

Diversity is strong among College of Arts and Sciences STEM majors, Hormes said, but entrance into biomedical research-focused graduate degree programs remains low.

In the 2016-17 academic year, for example, 224 students from underrepresented groups received undergraduate degrees in the departments participating in MARC at UAlbany, including biology, chemistry and psychology. While over half of them (51.8%) have since gone on to pursue graduate degree programs, only 3.6% entered programs related to biomedical research.

The aim of MARC at UAlbany is, at a minimum, to double and as much as triple that number over the initial five-year funding period, Hormes said.

“Data suggest that students from groups considered by the NIH to be underrepresented in biomedical sciences are really interested in graduate degrees, but for some reason they don't currently see themselves in these sorts of PhD or MD/PhD programs that are primarily focused on research,” she said. “So we're really trying to address structural barriers and close that gap with evidence-based strategies that target students’ broader sense of belonging in the science community, which we know predicts a lot of success when it comes to retaining traditionally underrepresented students in STEM careers.”

The program will be overseen by a program coordinator as well as three directors, including Altarriba, Hormes and Christine Wagner, associate vice provost for Faculty Development. Nearly two dozen faculty who teach in biomedical-related majors such as biology, chemistry and psychology-behavioral neuroscience have agreed to participate as faculty mentors.

The first cohort of MARC scholars is expected to enroll in the program this fall.