Thomas Nelson Students Take Advantage of NIH-Funded Program

May 10, 2018
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A major part of the college experience, and life in general, is making the most of the opportunities that arise. Several Thomas Nelson students are doing just that with  Virginia Commonwealth University's (VCU) Bridges to Baccalaureate Dream to Goal Summer Research Program, two eight-week summer internships funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

“I think it’s a really good opportunity,” said Kari Knepp, an aspiring obstetrician and gynecologist.

The students spend two summers in the program, which is geared toward talented students from underrepresented groups who are interested in biomedical or behavioral sciences. The first year begins with a three-week “Biology Boot Camp” followed by a five-week research internship where students receive hands-on experience. The second summer involves an independent research project over eight weeks.

Knepp’s biology teacher, Dr. Ann Evans, told her of the program.

“She said it’s a really good opportunity … She said she didn’t even get this kind of opportunity until after grad school,” said Knepp, a second-year student in the program, which runs May 21 to July 13 this year.

Thomas Nelson and VCU participate in the program through a $1.4 million NIH grant. Dr. Karen Kester, an associate professor of biology at VCU, is the principal investigator and program director for VCU’s Bridges to Baccalaureate program. Marty Zahn, a biology professor at Thomas Nelson’s Historic Triangle campus, and Shijian Chu, associate professor of biology at John Tyler Community College, are co-principal investigators on the grant. Susan Generazio, the adviser for science, engineering and technology at Thomas Nelson’s Historic Triangle campus, helps recruit students, assists them with the application process and does a lot of work behind the scenes. The five-year grant was approved in 2013 and Thomas Nelson students participated the first summer in 2014. The NIH will announce in early June if the grant is renewed.

 “We are very optimistic,” Kester said.

It's an intense program, beginning with the boot camp, which is when students learn a lot of the basics.

“For the first three weeks, we really cram a whole lot of techniques into it,” Zahn said. “[The professors also] spend time talking to them about responsible conduct of research, the ethics of research.”

After that, most of their time is spent in a lab.

“What they get is an experience in how real science works, and there’s only one way to get that, and that’s to participate,” Zahn said. “They work in a lab where they’re not alone. They have a mentor who’s a full-time faculty member up there. And there’s usually at least a grad student, and possibly a post-doctoral student, in the lab, and they work as a group in that lab.”

Hanna Angel, Xiomara Cuno La Villa and Kari Knepp (from left) are three of the students from Thomas Nelson's Hampton campus who are participating in the program.

That experience is exactly what attracted Thomas Nelson student Xiomara Cuno La Villa.

“I really like research. I’m really interested in the science field,” she said. “I want to know more about the science field, about research. I want to know how a lab works. I want to get more experience, so it will be helpful for me.”

That first summer culminates with a closing ceremony and poster presentation. Students also present posters at the Virginia Academy of Science's annual meeting the following May. The posters explain students' research, and each student has to explain his or her work and answer any questions people have about their poster, which is another great opportunity.

“[Dr. Evans] said she didn’t even get to present a poster like that until grad school,” Knepp said. “It’s a lot of work. It’s really nerve-racking.”

Zahn agreed having the research on a resume is key.

“This allows us to give some of our students here an opportunity to get undergraduate research experience,” Zahn said. “It makes a difference on that [graduate school] application when they can document research experience in a lab with a mentor. That’s a big plus for them.”

During that second summer, the returning students also guide the first-year participants. And they have another opportunity to present their research at a national science conference after the summer program ends. Students are almost always paired with the same mentors as in their first summer. Knepp found out recently she will be working with Dr. Seth Corey again.

“I’m so excited to be working for Dr. Corey and look forward to learning as much as possible this summer,” Knepp said.

Estefani Marshall, Nathan Otto and Elizabeth Torres (from left), all students at Thomas Nelson's Historic Triangle campus, also are participating in the Bridges to Baccalaureate Program at VCU this summer.

It’s often just the start of relationships with four-year institutions.

 “It’s been a wonderful experience for the students,” Zahn said. “Many of them have transferred on to four-year schools.”

Records show recent Thomas Nelson students who have participated in the program have gone on to Columbia University, George Mason University, the University of Virginia, VCU and Virginia Tech. The first William & Mary students will transfer in fall 2018. Knepp has applied to Johns Hopkins and the University of Maryland.

But it’s more than just the hands-on research experience that makes this program stand out. There are a lot of non-academic aspects.

One recent nationwide study showed STEM students leave their field of study at a much higher rate than their peers. Another showed only 14 percent of students who transfer from a two-year school to a four-year institution graduate within six years. And transfer students often are at a disadvantage socially. This program helps with all of those aspects.

“I think that’s what the NIH had in mind [when designing the grant],” Zahn said. “One of the issues they’re trying to help with is to increase the success rate of students when they transfer. Transferring can be really tough, especially the first semester, and some of them never make it through that. This is what they’re trying to assist with that.”

That’s where the “bridges” aspect comes in.

Kester also noted community college students are often on their own for the first time, which isn’t easy. Most of them need to learn about life outside the classroom, including planning and preparing meals, managing money, and time management.

“Transfer students have unique needs,” Kester said. “This helps them with basic life skills also.”

Zahn agreed that’s a big aspect of the program.

“As a bridge grant, its real value also is it takes students to VCU,” Zahn said. “They live in dorms. They find out what it’s like to be on a big college campus, and how to get around Richmond. … They also bring in people to talk to them about how to manage their time, how to manage their money. So it has value for more than just the research.

“The bridge grant was intended to make the transfer from two-year schools to four-year schools go more easily.”

La Villa, who is from Peru, said that will be a big benefit to her.

“This will be my first experience to be alone by myself,” she said. “So it’s kind of challenging for me but I want to know how to be by myself. It will help me when I will be an adult and I will have to take care of myself.”

Knepp said the non-academic sessions were a great help.

“They set up appointments for you to go visit financial aid,” she said. “And they would talk to us about scholarships and when you should do your FASFA, and resumes. …  There’s definitely things you don’t know.”

The social aspect also is important.

 “One of the things it does for these students is it provides them the college social aspect that, for the most part, community college students don’t have,” Zahn said.

Generazio, agrees the social support system and networking aspects are helpful.

“We’re two different campuses but we’re supposed to be one school,” she said of Thomas Nelson. “But our students [in Williamsburg] never interact with the ones [in Hampton] unless they have to take a class down there. But this, we have representation from both campuses, and what’s happened is now our students up here have made good friends with the students down at that campus, and that friendship has continued at VCU. I know in a couple of cases they’ve continued to be good friends beyond this school. So in that regard, the social aspect, it’s worked very well.”

Knepp said if she had one piece of advice for the first-year students, it’s to socialize.

“I wasn’t social enough because I thought that I needed to know everything,” she said. “I thought that everybody had these high expectations for me that I needed to meet. So I literally just went to my internship at the lab, got off the lab, went to the gym for maybe an hour, then went home and just studied or just looked up questions for the next day. So I didn’t do anything fun, really.”

Typically, almost half of the 18 participants in the program are from Thomas Nelson. Generazio said she usually sorts through 15-17 applications.

Said Zahn: “It has done so much for students ... who we wouldn’t otherwise provide the possibilities for.”

It benefits Thomas Nelson as well as the students.

“It’s important because, from my perspective, it brings us together with our four-year partners, especially VCU,” Generazio said. “From what I understand, it’s the seamless transition to the four-year [school]. We are not a community college standing alone. We’re now intermingled with our four-year partner and making sure our students’ transition is seamless.”

Other Thomas Nelson students preparing for their first summer in the program are Hanna Angel, Estefanie Marshall, Nathan Otto, Olivia Sweatt and Elizabeth Torres. Also preparing for a second summer is Jacqueline Ninkundiye. Former Thomas Nelson student Jonathan Kinsman, now at VCU, is also returning for a second summer.