WSU Program Nurtures Budding Research Scientists

9/12/11Follow @XconomyDET

At Wayne State University, labs aren’t just a sterile space for solemn experiments. For students in the school’s Initiative for Maximizing Student Development (IMSD), it’s a chance to work directly with their instructors, get a taste of the scientific life, and gather some up-close career advice in the process.

“The laboratory setting is almost like a kitchen,” says Joseph Dunbar, WSU’s associate vice president for research and the program’s director. “They can ask questions, interact … there’s not as much of a chasm between students and faculty. They see what’s possible, and it gives them confidence to talk about their careers in an intimate fashion.”

Last month, the National Institutes of Health announced a five-year grant of more than $3 million to support the IMSD program, which seeks to nurture student interest in scientific careers by providing them with opportunities to participate in behavioral and biomedical research projects.

Dunbar says the original idea behind the program was getting more ethnic minority students to work on scientific research projects. Wayne State was a natural fit for the program: When the IMSD program started in 1978, many students came from auto industry families and were the first in their familes to go to college.

“In metro Detroit, you had multiple generations of families working for the auto industry, and you’d grow up, go to high school, and then go to Mr. Ford or Mr. GM for a job—that’s just how it was done,” Dunbar says. “But those jobs are probably never coming back, and we know that America’s next move forward probably involves science and technology.”

At Wayne State, the program has supported more than 700 students so far. As of 2010, 390 undergraduates in the program had gone on to complete bachelor’s degrees, 64 had obtained master’s degrees, and 68 had gone on to complete doctorates. Some of the post-IMSD careers have been noteworthy. Eric Ansorge, who did research at WSU on heart failure through the program, is now an Army major in charge of a large biomedical research program.

Detroit-area student Charlotte Winston says she was inspired by the IMSD program to pursue a career in science. After receiving her undergraduate degree in psychology, she spent a few unfullfilling years as a social worker for a state agency. She found herself contemplating a graduate degree, but was unsure she could afford to stop working. The IMSD program offered a small salary, which helped the 44-year-old decide to return to school.

“I always knew that I wanted to go to college—that was a dream of mine,” Winston says. “But I figured that I would get my bachelor’s degree, go into the workforce, and that would be it.”

Instead, she enrolled in graduate studies. As part of the IMSD program, she did research on anti-depressant drugs at WSU, and did separate research for the Karmanos Institute. Winston cites Dunbar and the IMSD program, along with her grandmother, as being her chief motivators to continue with her education. Winston is now pursuing a phD in sociology, and expects to graduate in 2012. Her goal is to become a college professor.

Dunbar says Winston’s story in some ways is typical of a IMSD program participants, in that their perception tends to change as a result of their everyday involvement with science and faculty members who have made a career out of it.

“They see what’s possible,” Dunbar says, “and they discover ‘I can do this too.’”

Sarah Schmid is the editor of Xconomy Detroit. You can reach her at 313-570-9823 or sschmid@xconomy.com. Follow @XconomyDET

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