UT Health San Antonio has made a significant addition to the suite of NIH funded programs that broaden participation in biomedical research related careers. The recently awarded UT Health-LINK program is one of only 43 NIH funded (Post-Baccalaureate Research Education Program–PREP) that prepare students from diverse populations for admission into the nation’s most competitive doctoral programs. The $1.4 million dollar grant is one of only three such grants in Texas. Baylor College of Medicine and the University of Texas Medical Branch hold the other two. The PI/PDs on the grant are Drs. Nicquet Blake, David Weiss and Babatunde “Kay” Oyajobi.
PREP scholars receive a stipend of $26,000 along with tuition/ fees covered for up to two graduate level courses. Students also receive support to attend and present at two national conferences as well as resources for laboratory supplies.
“A lot of students finish undergraduate and are not sure if they are ready to join a graduate program. the PREP supports students by letting them work as apprentice scientists in a laboratory to gain additional wet lab skills,” explained Yvonne Valdez, the program coordinator for the PREP.
This program is expected to strengthen the research skills and academic competitiveness of participants for pursuit of rigorous, research-focused doctoral degree programs (e.g., Ph.D. or M.D./Ph.D.) in biomedical fields.
Class of 2021 Graduate: Lois Randolph
Mentor Name: Dr. David Libich
Lois Randolph, was interested in joining the PREP program because she felt that didn’t have sufficient research experience to be competitive for graduate school.
“I wanted to take a gap year and do the PREP program because you’re introduced, slowly, to what grad school would be like while also being able to work in a lab and take only a few grad classes without the stress of a full class load,” she said.
“I 100% believe the PREP program has prepared me for grad school,” she said. “The classes we were enrolled in have conditioned me to always ask questions and be curious about everything. I can now read and comprehend research articles a lot quicker (maybe within a day or two) and understand what it is I am reading. I can read articles from journals like Nature and Cell Biology and no longer feel like the information is going over my head! In fact, I recently presented a Nature paper at the Biochemistry journal club and was told I did a good job!”
During the PREP program, Lois explained that she learned how to balance lab work and school work.
“Something I learned while in the PREP program was when trying to do school all I need to do is just get my work started! I was told by the grad students that there will never be enough time in the day to do everything, but as long as I get my school work started early in the week and finish it later on in the week it makes what would be a daunting chore, an easy task!”
Lois is interested in combining cancer biology and bioinformatics and will be joining the Integrated Biomedical Sciences Ph.D. program at UT Health San Antonio.
“While in the PREP program I became fascinated with data science and really wanted to learn more so I started to learn a programming language. I am spending my summer at the Genome Sequencing center at Baylor College of Medicine learning the basics of bioinformatics. I am committed to pursuing a career in research with a heavy focus on bioinformatics. It would be nice to remain in academia but I am not opposed to working in industry!”
Class of 2021 Graduate: Valerie Caro
Mentor Name: Dr. Alexander Bishop
Valerie Caro explained that the PREP program was the ideal “next step” to take in her academic journey for multiple reasons aside from wanting to pursue higher education.
“Though I was exposed to research during my undergraduate studies, I wanted to expand my research experiences by having a project of my own that would allow me to hone my critical thinking skills and thus mold me into a more independent scientist.”
As a PREP scholar, she explained that she achieved this and so much more.
“I also wanted to be a part of a program that helped me with professional development and the PREP program offers multiple opportunities/activities to accomplish this,” she said. “Overall, the PREP program was an excellent choice that helped me grow in more ways than I could have possibly imagined.”
Valerie will be joining the Cancer Biology discipline of the Integrated Biomedical Sciences Ph.D. Program this fall.
“During the PREP program, I worked in an extraordinary lab that focuses on cancer biology and since I had no prior research experience in cancer biology, everything that I learned from this lab was a new technique,” she said. “Now, I am extremely grateful for that experience because I wish to continue pursuing this field of research for my Ph.D.”
Valerie’s goal is to become a physician scientist.
“I envision myself as a physician scientist investigating molecular mechanisms of disease in the lab setting and applying my findings in a manner that can help the patients I treat. Science and medicine go hand-in-hand and to be able to translate one scientific discovery into an effective therapeutic is undoubtedly transcending. I ultimately hope to have a positive impact on peoples’ lives by contributing to the improvement of their quality of life.”
Class of 2021 Graduate: Justin Sharp
Mentor Name: Dr. Addanki Pratap Kumar
Justin Sharp was interested in the PREP program because he wanted to gain more research experience.
“When I first read about the PREP program, I thought ‘this is just to give me more research experience’ It quickly became apparent that the program had much more to offer. I am grateful for the help in preparing my resume/CV and personal statement. I also appreciated the organization and time management skills we learned.” His best memory of the program was the final presentation that he gave in his lab.
“Being able to “talk science” with them. Even after the presentation we were just sitting and talking. It kind of took the pressure off of trying to make everything work.”
Justin plans to start his rotations at the University of Kentucky College of Pharmacy. After he graduates, he plans on continuing his education by going to pharmacy school.
Class of 2021 Graduate: Kaejaren Caldwell
Mentor Name: Dr. Armen Akopian
Kaejaren Caldwell, joined the PREP program because she knew she needed more research experience before she went to graduate school.
“All my previous research experiences were in a single field and I wanted the opportunity to expand my experiences and make sure I was one the right path,” she said.
She explained that she enjoyed the PREP program.
“I wish I could have had these experiences in non-COVID times as I think the impact would have been even greater,” she said. “but the program provided me the opportunity to understand what I needed to improve and the skills I needed to develop in order to be successful in graduate school.”
She believes that the PREP Program helped her refine her skills for graduate school.
“I was able to improve on my reading and writing skills especially when it comes to scientific articles and understanding them. I think if we could have a general refresher course during the program similar to a general first year course would’ve been helpful,” she said. “But overall I think I am ready.”
Her favorite class was the PI-led course.
“All of our PIs shared their research with us and reiterated different concepts through articles they enjoyed to read. They explained what at first were difficult concepts in ways that all of could understand not just the PREP student who was in their lab,” she said. “It was a great experience to learn something new and about what our peers were doing in their labs.”
She will be starting a Ph.D. program at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center.
“My plan is to work in the area of pediatric pain in the Neuroscience program at Cincinnati. I want to be able to understand the mechanism underlying pain development especially in premature babies.”
Applications for the 2022-2023 academic year will open on February 3 through March 31, 2022. To learn more or to apply to the PREP Program, click here.
Questions or concerns should be directed to the program coordinator for the PREP at firstname.lastname@example.org.