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CSULB’s Program RISES Into Second Decade

Published: July 15, 2015

CSULB recently received a $4.45 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to fund the next five years (2015-20) of its Research Initiative for Scientific Enhancement (RISE) Program. Specifically, the funding comes from the NIH’s National Institute of General Medical Sciences–Training, Workforce Development and Diversity Division.

The RISE program at CSULB, which began in 2004, is now heading full steam into its second decade. Just one of 49 such programs across the nation, its goal is to increase the capacity of students underrepresented in the biomedical sciences to complete Ph.D. degrees in related fields and become biomedical researchers.

The NIH provides grants to institutions that have a commitment and history of developing students from populations underrepresented in biomedical sciences as defined by the National Science Foundation. By supporting these institutions, RISE aims to help reduce the existing gap in the completion of Ph.D. degrees between underrepresented and non-underrepresented students.

“The NIH looks at solving health-related problems and their view, and I agree with them, is that we need a diversity of perspectives in order to solve the problems, so we want a very diverse group of individuals in biomedical research,” said Paul Buonora, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry at CSULB, who is directing the program.

“By diversity it could mean ethnic diversity, although it’s really broader, including individuals who are underrepresented in the science fields,” he added. “It could be foster children, who have a very low rate of getting college undergraduate degrees let alone graduate degrees. Or people with disabilities, such as hearing or visually impaired individuals. There is some emphasis on socio-economic differences, individuals who come from poorer backgrounds who generally don’t go on to Ph.D.programs, so diversity is in a large-scale.”

The undergraduate program, headed by Buonora, will focus on five sophomores in its lower-division program and 20 junior and senior students in its upper-division program.

The M.S.-to-Ph.D. program, overseen by biological sciences’ professor Judy Brusslan, focuses on eight students per year for the first three years, increasing to 12 students in the fourth year and 16 in the fifth.

Along with getting to work with faculty mentors in a nurturing environment, students in both programs will receive financial support, research supplies and the opportunity to travel and present their research at the national level.

“We’re really trying to make the mentors involved in a lot of different things the RISE students are doing to prepare for graduate school. We’re trying to make it more integrated,” said Brusslan. “These students have high potential and they are generally very motivated.

“It’s intensive,” she added, referring to the graduate program. “With this money there are high expectations of what has to be done in those two years. It’s an incredible honor and a great deal, but it’s for people who really want to accomplish things.”

While at a recent conference in Washington D.C., Buonora noted that one of the things other program directors talked about when referring to RISE is that it’s about the development of students, not the selection.

“When we’re looking at the students, we’re looking at the motivation, we’re not just looking at GPA and things like that. We’re looking at ‘Is this really what they want to do?’” said Buonora. “They come in and feel like somebody believes in me and is willing to invest in me.”

Paul Buonora
Paul Buonora

The financial support provided by the grant is key because it enables students to focus on school and fully participate in research.

“By getting paid for the time they are in the lab, instead of having to work somewhere else, students are able to get the research experience, do presentations at professional society meetings and potentially get on publications,” said Buonora. “And when they are applying to graduate programs, those doing the selecting can see that these students are already trained to be researchers which improves their application prospects for a graduate program.”

According to Buonora, the percentage of students who don’t participate in these programs who go on to Ph.D. programs is roughly 15 percent. Through the RISE program at CSULB, however, approximately 60 percent move into Ph.D. programs, well above what you would normally see.

“Sixty percent is above what the NIH is looking for as a minimum, although in the last two years we have had 75 percent of RISE students go on to a Ph.D. program, and I think we can continue to be at that kind of level,” he said. “We like to think that a lot of that is because we are training them to be researchers making them better applicants for doctorate programs.”

When talking about the M.S.-to-Ph.D. program, which is new to CSULB, Buonora feels the number of slots given through the NIH grant provides a great opportunity to attract strong students to the master’s program and really advance what’s going on in the program.

“It will increase the focus on the master’s program as a stepping stone for those students who aren’t going directly to a Ph.D.,” he said. “So it can really be transformative not only for these departments but for the campus as well down the road.”