Increasing diversity: NIH funds undergrad program in environmental health

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A new National Institutes of Health-funded program involving six University of Arizona colleges and the BIO5 Institute is aimed at increasing diversity in the ranks of environmental health scientists by building a program that offers research experiences and support services to prepare UA undergraduates to be successful graduate students. 

Walter Klimecki, associate professor and associate head of the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology in the UA College of Pharmacy, was awarded a grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences to develop an environmental health sciences research-training program for UA undergraduate students who are from backgrounds that are under-represented in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields. These groups include people from racial and ethnic groups under-represented in health-related sciences, as well as individuals with disabilities and those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Klimecki will co-direct this undergraduate research-education program, called “EHS-TRUE (Environmental Health Sciences-Transformative Research Undergraduate Experience),” with Professor Carol Bender of the UA Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology and the director of the UA Undergraduate Biology Research Program (UBRP).

The grant will provide $540,000 over five years for this effort, supporting about 30 UA undergraduate students. More than 30 faculty members from the UA colleges of pharmacy, medicine, public health, nursing, agriculture and life sciences and the BIO5 Institute will participate. About 40 percent of the faculty mentors represent ethnic minorities, and about 20 percent are from backgrounds under-represented in STEM fields.

Environmental health science is the study of human health impact from environmental exposures, including exposures occurring at all stages of life, and broadly involving chemicals and stressors that can perturb biological processes. Environmental health scientists study a broad range of topics: for example, how arsenic dissolved in the drinking water can lead to lung disease and cancer, or how exposure to emotionally stressful living conditions can impact disease likelihood and severity.

EHS-TRUE will offer selected UA undergraduates a holistic, two-year research experience that will include paid, mentored student work in research laboratories throughout the academic year and summer, tutoring in undergraduate coursework, training in the responsible conduct of research and enrollment in colloquia courses that include a new undergraduate course designed by Klimecki. The new course will be PCOL 395, “The Chemical Environment, Environmental Exposures and Human Disease.”  

“We are grateful to Dr. Skip Garcia, senior vice president for health sciences,” says Klimecki, “who committed $5,000 per year for tutoring services for the undergrad trainees.”

Depending on funding, the program may also support student travel to national scientific meetings. 

EHS-TRUE will use an innovative online tool, Trello, that will allow students to manage laboratory tasks, chart their progress and post their research data. This will all happen online, and students will be able to see what others are working on and add online comments or questions.  Klimecki refers to this as “a virtual lab meeting, running and updated in real time.”

“Funding agencies are taking steps to get the pool of professionals in the STEM fields moving toward reflecting the diversity of the country,” says Klimecki, who is also a member of the BIO5 Institute. “Funding agencies realize that we must reach out and engage students early-on to establish that they can be successful and make a difference in STEM disciplines. That’s one reason we’re excited about having the opportunity to develop this undergraduate program.

“This project is a good example of the collaborative strength of the UA,” continues Klimecki. “We wouldn’t have been successful in getting this grant if either my department or Professor Bender’s UBRP program had applied for this funding alone. We needed the combined strength of our Center for Toxicology and Carol’s undergraduate research training track record to be able to provide the kind of complete research experience that we proposed. In this case, one plus one equals three.”

The first cohort of eight students will start in labs this summer and the new course will launch this fall.

To apply for the program, students use an online process managed by the UBRP. EHS-TRUE will be advertised on the UBRP website and in various offices for under-represented students, such as the African American Student Affairs Center, the Disability Resources Center, the Chicano/Hispano Student Affairs Center, the Native American Student Affairs Office and the Women’s Resource Center.

“What makes this a win-win endeavor,” says Klimecki, “is that we’re giving students from under-represented groups the opportunity to get inspired by their training in environmental health science, a win for the undergrads. But we win, too. Currently, there are groups missing from the pool of environmental health science researchers: the under-represented groups. And when we miss people from those groups, we miss talent. We can’t afford to miss talent.”

NIH grant number R25-ES025494

Photo (from left): Carol Bender; Nisha Puri, a UA undergraduate researcher in the Klimecki Lab; and Walter Klimecki.

Story by Karin Lorentzen and Walter Klimecki

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