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STEM Program Partnership Helps Scholars Build Professional Network

September 15, 2021

When students join the Chancellor’s Science Scholars Program, they quickly learn that their supportive community extends far beyond the boundaries of UNC.

The Chancellor’s Science Scholars Program is known for building a supportive, uplifting community among its cohorts of scholars, but new students are often surprised to learn that this community also encompasses STEM scholars at other universities.

The Meyerhoff Adaptation Project began in 2013 in order to replicate the nationally-recognized Meyerhoff Scholars Program at the University of Maryland Baltimore County on other college campuses, in an effort to promote a more inclusive culture in STEM fields. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Pennsylvania State University were the first two research universities to develop programs around the Meyerhoff model, which emphasizes the value of building community, mentoring, and instilling high expectations of scholars.

Early on, program leaders from the three schools recognized the importance of connecting their scholars with each other and established an annual meeting. For several years, new CSS scholars joined the newest Meyerhoff Scholars from UMBC and Millennium Scholars from PSU on the UMBC campus* to network and build relationships that would carry over to graduate school and beyond.

“It is vital that our scholars make connections with other outstanding future STEM leaders across the country,” said Dr. Thomas Freeman, CSS executive director. “They will continue to see students from other MAP programs at research conferences, in graduate school, and perhaps even as colleagues one day, all of which could form the foundation of exciting collaborations or other professional opportunities.”

“Coming from similar programs, they have something in common and are able to discuss their goals and journeys with others who ‘get it,’” he added.

Alannah Jones (UNC ’21, CSS 6) and Kiara Thompson (UNC ’23, CSS 7) revisited those MAP connections this summer through the Janelia-Meyerhoff Undergraduate Summer Program. This program, designed specifically for students from the CSS, Meyerhoff, and Millennium Scholars programs, pairs scholars with researchers at the Janelia Research Campus of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute for 10 weeks of cutting-edge research, professional development, and mentorship.

Citing similar program cultures, Thompson explained the benefits of conducting summer research with a cohort of students from programs like CSS.

“We’re all in a similar headspace in terms of being really motivated and wanting to succeed and having similar end goals,” she said. “Because everyone in the program was a STEM major interested in pursuing some sort of additional education after undergrad, we automatically had things in common. We were then able to discuss our research and share about what we were each learning from our individual projects.”

The students quickly grew close while reminiscing about shared experiences during Summer EXCELerator (or Summer Bridge, as the other programs call their summer program for incoming scholars).

“We talked about our cohort bonding and things that were the same and different between the programs,” said Thompson. “One of the other scholars [at Janelia] and I had actually been in the same small group at our meet-up a few years ago, so it was cool to reconnect.”

The Janelia-Meyerhoff summer program immerses participants in a cutting-edge research lab to help them develop as scientists and provide valuable hands-on experience.

Jones, a neuroscience major from Columbia, SC, spent her summer studying deep brain stimulation in Parkinsonian mice models in order to determine the most effective parameters for deep brain stimulation and how it impacts dopamine activity in the brain. Her mentors encouraged independence early on.

“They had a lot of faith in us and let us go off on our own pretty often, even if we didn’t have a lot of lab experience,” she said.

Thompson agrees. “They pretty much treated us like graduate students a little bit, if we wanted to plan our own projects or something,” she added. “It was honestly amazing, especially for me because I had zero in-person lab experience, so getting to be in the lab in person was really great.”

Thompson, a biochemistry major from Tallahassee, FL, used the Multidrug and Toxin Extrusion Protein 1 (MATE1) to study how proteins move in cells in order to pave the way for the creation of more effective cancer medications.

Outside of the lab, the program encouraged professional development and relationship building through weekly meetings where Janelia scientists shared their STEM journeys, sessions on applying to graduate school, and a journal club to review and discuss research papers, as well as social activities like hiking, trips to Washington D.C. museums, and other group outings.

Jones recognized similarities among the scholars in how they approached these meetings and workshops. “Because our programs are alike, we all understood that we needed to contribute and ask meaningful questions and make connections,” she said, which enhanced the experience for everyone.

One of the Janelia group leaders was a former Meyerhoff Scholar at UMBC, who shared how his experiences in the program helped him identify his career path. “It was so interesting to meet someone who works in the field and was in our shoes just a few years ago,” said Thompson.

In addition to learning more about varied career paths in STEM, Thompson appreciated Janelia’s ongoing efforts to create culture change and encourage those who may not fit the traditional idea of a scientist to participate in research careers.

“I feel like it was a really good environment to be in as a young scientist of color and as a woman,” she said. “It felt like they really wanted us there and that they were really glad that we were there.”

Scholars who participate in the Janelia-Meyerhoff research program in the future can count on a summer full of learning and working alongside other motivated students who share common values and goals.

“I feel like it’s a pretty rare experience to meet people who know the curriculum and program you’re going through,” said Jones. “It’s nice to share these experiences with people who are in similar programs.”

*Beginning in 2020, the summer meet-up took place via a virtual format and included three additional schools with programs modeled after the UMBC Meyerhoff Scholars: Karsh STEM Scholars at Howard University, SEED Scholars at the University of California-Berkeley, and PATHS Scholars at the University of California-San Diego. Now, the incoming cohorts of six different universities connect at the beginning of their undergraduate journeys to begin building a broad network of future collaborators and colleagues.

Pictured from L-R: Cassidy Pitts (PSU Millennium Scholar), Cassi Nunez (PSU Millennium Scholar), Kiara Thompson, Jeannine Dizon (UMBC Meyerhoff Scholar), Alannah Jones, and Maya Haywood (PSU Millennium Scholar)

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