NIH-funded program offers Cumberland County College students opportunities at Rowan

NIH-funded program offers Cumberland County College students opportunities at Rowan

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Program focuses on preparing underrepresented populations for the sciences

While other teens and young adults were swimming in water this summer, seven students from Cumberland County College (CCC) were working in it.

The students are part of the Bridges to the Baccalaureate program funded by the National Institutes of Health that pairs the nearby county college with Rowan University in a push to open the doors to underrepresented populations to degrees and professions in the sciences.

Fostering diversity

The NIH presented a $1.3 million, five-year grant to Dr. Alison Krufka, a Rowan associate professor in Biological Sciences, to lead the initiative, which is part of NIH’s focus on fostering diversity in the biomedical workforce.

“It is designed to take students at the community college and get them acclimated to a four-year college, to help them develop the academic and scientific skills they will need to be successful in a bachelor’s program,” Krufka said.

This year, the students spent most of their time at CCC and its environs, including working on a summer-long research project characterizing viruses that infect bacteria in local water source Crystal Lake, about five minutes from the CCC campus. Working with Rowan’s Dr. Gregory Hecht, professor of biological sciences, and CCC’s Dr. Mark Randa, assistant professor of biology, the students learned in the lab and in the field about microbiology, molecular biology and the local environment.

Randa said the program also included presentations on research by three Rowan biology professors and one chemistry professor and a talk by Rowan’s pre-med advisor about medical and veterinary schools, while Krufka visited the CCC campus every other week to conduct research workshops.

CCC offered two courses whose credits directly transfer to Rowan, the Biological Skills and Methods class and Introduction to Ecology.

Opening doors to students

“The most exciting thing is the students at Cumberland County College will be transferring here in September,” Krufka said.

When they do, the program will provide them with academic advising, career advising, research workshops and, most importantly, opportunities to conduct research with Rowan faculty. Rowan also will provide a peer-mentoring element for the CCC students who enroll at Rowan and those still on the CCC campus in Vineland.

In addition to welcoming the first cohort of six incoming juniors to Glassboro for 2018/19, the program will begin its second cohort at CCC.

“Students will get a paid research experience at Rowan so they do not have to get another job. Research takes time. The students, who will work in biology and biochemistry labs, will gain that time thanks to the paid research experience,” Krufka said.

Years three through five will repeat the first two years with new students and may offer summer research opportunities for those at Rowan as well. The program also will cover travel expenses for students to present research at regional and national conferences.

Enjoying opportunities

“They’ll get to see what science is like beyond the college level and have networking opportunities for jobs and graduate schools,” Krufka said.

She noted the program focuses on unrepresented populations, including African Americans, Hispanics, Pacific Islanders, those from a lower socioeconomic background and those with disabilities. Most, if not all, are and are expected to be first-generation college students, though that is not a requirement.

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“And the NIH believes when you’re in diverse groups you get a broader, more creative way of thinking. We want to tap into the best talent we have in this country. If we’re not tapping into minority students, we’re not tapping into our full talent pool.”

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Reaching out to underrepresented populations is critical to the future of the biomedical field.

“In biomedical science, in research areas, if we can broadly diversify the biomedical workforce, we’re impacting who our future doctors, nurses, researchers and technicians are. That helps for interacting with people,” Krufka said. “And the NIH believes when you’re in diverse groups you get a broader, more creative way of thinking. We want to tap into the best talent we have in this country. If we’re not tapping into minority students, we’re not tapping into our full talent pool.”

Exploring research

Randa, a 12-year veteran at CCC, said the program has provided his students with exceptional hands-on experience. “It far surpassed anything they learned in their course work. They learned how to conduct experiments, what happens when an experiment goes wrong. They got out of the mindset that research is an hour-and-a half-block of lab time. They learned that it never really ends. There are always more things to think about.”

Added Dr. Cristian Botez, dean of Rowan’s College of Science and Mathematics and School of Health Professions,” The NIH-funded Bridges to the Baccalaureate Program led by Dr. Krufka is very well aligned with many of our priorities and strategic directions and illustrates the competitiveness of our faculty in securing major federal grants. The program is important because it offers outstanding research and instruction opportunities in biological sciences to southern New Jersey students -- including underrepresented populations -- and also fosters sustainable collaborations with the Cumberland Community College.​​

Student Cynthia Lascarez, 18, of Vineland, hopes to one day become a radiologist. The biomedical science major at CCC and prospective biological sciences major at Rowan said of the initiative, “It is an exceptional program for aspiring biomedical students. It has provided me with hands-on experiences inside and outside of the laboratory. With the help of the extraordinary mentors, I have acquired numerous laboratory skills. Their mentoring will provide me with a smooth transition to Rowan University.”