Students Spearhead Program to Bring More Diversity into Microbiology and Immunology

A person in a face mask, gloves and lab coat pipes material into a tray underneath a glass shieldWhile jobs in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) have grown nearly 80 percent since 1990, representation of racial minorities, those with disabilities or from lower income backgrounds and women in these career fields remains low.

It’s something a group of graduate students in the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine noticed, along with the current social climate.

To be eligible for the program, students must have a strong interest in microbiology or immunology. Ideal candidates will be interested in pursuing medical or graduate studies in a biomedical field.

Students must also:

  • Be a member of an underrepresented racial/ethnic group as defined by the National Institutes of Health.
  • Be 18 years of age or older and currently enrolled as an undergraduate at the University of Pittsburgh.
  • Have completed at least one semester of undergraduate coursework.
  • Have a working knowledge of computers, standard office software packages (Word, WordPerfect, Excel, Access, PowerPoint, etc.)

“Looking into the fact that Pitt also doesn’t have a lot of retention with minority students, we knew that we needed to do something,” said Ayana Ruffin, a graduate student researcher in Immunology.

Ruffin and several other graduate students in Pitt’s Program in Microbiology and Immunology (PMI) came together to create a new program that aims to promote diversity in health and science. The Microbiology and Immunology Diversity Scholars Program, sponsored by the PMI graduate program, will engage underrepresented minority undergraduate students to consider careers in science, medicine and public health, as well as provide exposure to microbiology and immunology research, and improve diversity in STEM by preparing these students for careers in the biomedical sciences.

“We’re prepping these scholars’ careers in biomedical sciences by focusing on research, mentorship and career development,” said Sidney Lane, a graduate researcher in microbiology and molecular genetics. “We also hope to improve diversity in university faculty by having more undergraduate and graduate researchers become interested in academia.”

The students behind the program’s inception were part of undergraduate or semi-graduate research programs at their respective previous schools. Lane graduated with her bachelor’s degree from the University of Miami, while Ruffin graduated with her master’s degree from Towson University.

“We realized that without these programs, we wouldn’t be here at Pitt, and Pitt didn’t have a program that other schools we went to for our undergraduate degrees had,” said Ruffin. “We talked to faculty and department chairs about our program idea (at Pitt) and they backed us on this.”

The students also recently held a virtual town hall in early September to introduce and talk about the program.

A woman in a scarf and blue shirtThe program will provide $1,500 in funding per semester (fall and spring) to cover 10 weeks of research working 10 hours or more per week and $500 to participate in national research events.

The program is currently taking applications for the fall 2020 semester until Sept. 21. Applicants will be notified of their selection on Oct. 5 and research begins Oct. 12.

    Program leaders said this model can be used by other departments and schools at Pitt to better engage with underrepresented minority students.

    “I’m really impressed with these students’ motivation and their wanting to make a difference,” said Jennifer Bomberger, associate professor of microbiology and molecular genetics at Pitt and PMI graduate program director. “We want to maintain the momentum this program has going forward.”

    Students who have questions on applying can contact program director Partha Biswas at psb13@pitt.edu.