NIH renews South Texas Doctoral Bridge program at Texas State
Jayme Blaschke | January 7, 2019
The National Institute of Health (NIH) has announced competitive renewal of the South Texas Doctoral Bridge program for another five years.
The $1.5 million grant award is a partnership between Texas State University and University of Texas Health San Antonio.
The South Texas Doctoral Bridge program is an initiative to provide master’s level students with the necessary research training and academic preparation to facilitate their successful transition into top tier research-intensive Ph.D. programs in the nation. UT Health San Antonio is the lead institution of the NIH program, which promotes the participation of individuals from underrepresented groups in the pursuit of advanced degrees in biomedical research. It is one of only 11 such programs in the U.S., and the only one in Texas.
Texas State's role is to identify promising students underrepresented in science and guide them through a two-year, thesis research-based masters program. Texas State chemistry and biochemistry faculty serve as mentors to the students, hosting them in their laboratories. The mentors teach the students how research is done, how to conduct themselves in a rigorous, research-focused environment, and provide examples of professional behavior and high level expectations.
"The scientific enterprise of this country, including biomedical science supported by the NIH, does not reflect the cultural diversity of America overall. Some cultures are as underrepresented in the sciences as they are in medicine and CEO offices," said Ron Walter, professor and university chair in cancer research and director of the Xiphophorus Genetic Stock Center at Texas State. "The NIH understands that to reach the population they serve, they need to enhance the ability of underrepresented minorities with an interest in science to earn terminal doctoral degrees that may lead to careers in biomedical research as active scientists."
Students admitted to the program earn their master's degree at Texas State to prepare them to transition to biomedical Ph.D. programs at UT Health San Antonio, or any Ph.D.-granting institution in the nation. The program has a clear track record of success, with every participant in the five-year-old program still on track to earn their doctorate.
"The South Texas Doctoral Bridge Program can and has changed the trajectory of the lives of the participants in the program," said Babatunde Oyajobi, professor and deputy chair for education and training at UT Health San Antonio, and the principal investigator for the NIH program. "As students at Texas State University, these young scholars enter the program unprepared for the rigors of a scientific career, and after a mere two years of training they leave equipped with the skills and competencies necessary to take on new scientific frontiers."
The results speak for themselves: Those who have completed the program at Texas State are currently enrolled in the doctoral programs at respected institutions such as the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Yale University, Baylor College of Medicine, University of Iowa, Duke University, University of Minnesota, Dartmouth University and Johns Hopkins University. Many of the student are first-generation college graduates, with no family tradition of pursuing higher education. The Bridge program covers 100 percent of their education expenses, allowing the students to focus on academic accomplishment without distraction.
"Many of our students come from lower socio-economic backgrounds. There's need," said Raquel Salinas, Bridge program coordinator and program faculty with the Xiphophorus Genetic Stock Center at Texas State. "For these students, when they enter our program, it's often the first time they've been able to focus on their courses and research. Almost all of our students had to hold second jobs just to put themselves through college, so this is their opportunity to show their potential and really dive into research."
Doctoral students at UT Health San Antonio provide mentoring to the Bridge participants, and Texas State alumni provide insight and guidance to the students. Participants attend the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students, which gives them an opportunity to network and build relationships with peers as well as experience the full range of career paths available to them. The thesis-based master program Bridge students complete at Texas State ensures that they have publication-quality research by the time they earn their degree—an advantage when it comes to competing for positions in prestigious doctoral programs.
The benefits of the program are not exclusive to Bridge participants, however. The NIH renewal includes provisions for a new course in genomics to be developed at Texas State in cooperation with faculty at UT Health San Antonio. Genomics is a field that's an increasingly important part of biomedical research. When the course becomes operational, it will be offered to all students at Texas State, not just those in the Bridge program. That stems from a requirement that Bridge program innovations be integrated into the overall curriculum, so that all biochemistry students at Texas State can ultimately benefit. During the initial five-year grant, Texas State developed a fundamentals of research course, which is now required of all first-year chemistry and biochemistry masters students.
"That UT Health San Antonio and our colleagues at Texas State have the opportunity to influence these young minds and help these students reach their ultimate goals is an honor and a privilege that we do not take lightly," Oyajobi said. "This successful renewal renewal is an affirmation that the South Texas Doctoral Bridge Program is achieving its objectives and accomplishing the goals for the Bridges-to-the-Doctorate program set by the NIH."