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Margarita L. Dubocovich, PhD

Margarita L. Dubocovich, PhD

Rajendram Rajnarayanan, PhD

Rajendram Rajnarayanan, PhD

PhD Student Development Program Gains Renewed Funding from NIH

Published May 10, 2017

A National Institutes of Health (NIH) training grant aimed at providing professional development resources and mentoring for doctoral students in several UB schools has been renewed for another five years.

“The theme is to be a catalyst. We are creating a self-propagating pipeline. We are developing leaders.”
Assistant professor of pharmacology and toxicology

The Initiative for Maximizing Student Development (IMSD) will provide $2.3 million in funding to train 20 new biomedical and behavioral scientists from underrepresented groups between now and 2021.

The institutional grant benefits doctoral students in the following schools and institutes: Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, School of Dental Medicine, School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences, School of Public Health and Health Professions, College of Arts and Sciences, School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and Roswell Park Cancer Institute Graduate Division.

NIH Committed to Increasing Opportunities

The IMSD is a student development program for research-intensive institutions funded by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences. Only 21 such grants devoted to doctoral student training were awarded nationwide, and of those only 10 went to Association of American Universities institutions, of which UB is a member.

“When you get an infusion of funds such as this, it provides the seed to energize everyone,” says Margarita L. Dubocovich, PhD, senior associate dean for diversity and inclusion, the principal investigator on the grant.

“Faculty members get excited because they can have wonderful students working for them,” she says. “Students get excited because they have a program offering career and professional development activities around them, in which they can succeed. The main goal is to make sure students are successful.”

Grant co-principal investigator Rajendram Rajnarayanan, PhD, assistant professor of pharmacology and toxicology, notes that NIH is committed to increasing opportunities in research-intensive universities such as UB.

“Diverse teams often create real solutions to problems such as health disparities because they have real knowledge of the situations and thus bring more to the table,” he says. “The theme is to be a catalyst, with mentors and students interacting.”

Goal of Developing Leaders, Adding to Diverse Faculty

One of the specific aims of the IMSD grant is to attract an excellent and diverse faculty to UB.

“We are creating a forum where people from different disciplines and backgrounds meet and exchange ideas, and that leads to professional development,” Rajnarayanan says. “We are creating a self-propagating pipeline. We are developing leaders.”

Dubocovich, who is also a SUNY Distinguished Professor of pharmacology and toxicology, says UB has successfully integrated IMSD with other institutional programs such as the Institute of Strategic Enhancement of Educational Diversity (iSEED).

The support of 14 graduate students by iSEED during previous academic years expanded the IMSD cohort and was critical for the renewal of the grant, she says.

“NIH wants institutions to show a commitment, and the deans of our schools stepped up with institution-wide funding commitments at various levels,” Dubocovich notes.

“Diversity does not happen if you are working in isolation,” Rajnarayanan adds. “You need a critical mass of students to partner with. iSEED’s goal is to bring in intellectual diversity.”

Looking Beyond Numbers to Assess Candidates

Dubocovich also notes that using a holistic approach to admitting students “has changed the narrative of how the admissions committees operate.”

“We do not focus on metrics,” she says. “We look for a commitment to excellence, an effort of continually trying to improve one’s self.”

Rajnarayanan says that while grade point averages remain important, officials look beyond the numbers when assessing doctoral program candidates.

“Sometimes you have to take into consideration a person is working two or three jobs while attending school or raising a family,” he says. “Our program focuses on funding the first two years because studies show most students who drop out of graduate education do so in the first two years. If they are in the program for two years, they are most likely going to finish.”

Stressing Importance of Publishing Research

Having a resume of published research is crucial for aspiring academic scientists, Dubocovich says.

“In order for someone to enter a path of academic leadership and the professoriate, they have to meet certain qualifications,” she says.

“They have to have a trajectory that starts when they are an undergraduate, or even in high school, and if they want to enter into science, they have to follow a path of excellence by presenting and publishing their research from the very beginning,” Dubocovich notes.

The IMSD program prompts doctoral students to constantly network and publish research.

“We prepare them so they are very competitive when they apply for postdoctoral positions,” she says. “They are in the pipeline for success. We want to funnel them to the clinical and translational workforce or to the academic track.”

Student, Faculty Support Network Aids Success

Trainees in the program note that the mentoring and professional development tools it provides have been critical to their successes.

Spencer Rosario, a doctoral candidate in molecular pharmacology and cancer therapeutics at Roswell Park Cancer Institute, says major benefits of the program were: It helped her establish a support network of students and faculty outside of her program, and it provided mentoring opportunities by giving her a forum to showcase her bioinformatics skills and teach other graduate students.

“It also helped me to understand the grant writing process and provided alternative sources for both practice talks and grant reviews,” she says.

Rosario already has a total of four publications and has been co-first author on a science paper. She is also included in two publications currently in submission and is preparing another first author manuscript.

She is working in tumor metabolism at RPCI under the mentorship of Dominic Smiraglia, PhD, and Kevin Eng, PhD.

“We are developing a pipeline to determine which metabolic pathways are most highly dysregulated in a tissue specific manner,” Rosario says. “It allows us to determine which metabolic pathways should be targeted in individual tumor tissue sites.”

Grantsmanship Workshops Provide Valuable Advice

Having his first two years of expenses for graduate school completely covered through the IMSD grant was a tremendous benefit, says Kerri Pryce, a doctoral candidate in pharmacology and toxicology.

“The first semester of graduate school can be daunting, so the funding and the guided mentorship were definitely major benefits,” he says.

Through the IMSD’s workshops in grantsmanship, Pryce received valuable advice in preparing a F31 diversity fellowship application.

He also received funds to attend the American Society for Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics annual meeting, for which he received a third place prize for best poster presentation.

Pryce was also personally invited by UB President Satish K. Tripathi to represent the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences and make a presentation at a SUNY Board of Trustees meeting.

His research focus is on the underlying mechanisms of pain, particularly the molecular mechanisms that control the expression of the voltage gated sodium channel NaV 1.8 and the outward rectifying potassium channels Slack and Slick at the cell membrane in pain-sensing neurons (nociceptors).

“We have identified a scaffolding protein that clusters these ion channels together, localizing their function, and the deletion of the scaffold leads to a decrease in cell membrane expression of these ion channels,” he says.

Pryce is mentored by Arin Bhattacharjee, PhD, associate professor of pharmacology and toxicology.

Flexibility Valuable Benefit of Program

Mohamed Sharif, a doctoral candidate in the PhD Program in Biomedical Sciences, says the IMSD program has not only made him a better doctoral student, but it has also forced him to look past the educational setting provided by UB and learn what he needs to do to become a better professional and independent researcher.

“With my acceptance into graduate school came a subtle uneasiness about my ability to survive in such a competitive program,” he says.

In addition to having taken two years off since earning his undergraduate degrees, Sharif and his wife were graduate student-parents to two sons under the age of 25 months.

“I thought I was starting the PhD program with major disadvantages, but looking back I see that to the contrary, I had more advantages than my classmates,” Sharif says. “This is solely thanks to the IMSD program at UB.”

A major advantage the program afforded Sharif was the opportunity to begin his training in early July instead of late August.

“During this time I was able to improve my laboratory skills and start my first lab rotation instead of waiting until October to start it with my classmates,” he says. “This made it easier to build up and improve my laboratory skills without having to worry about starting my classes.”

Study Groups Encourage Interaction Between Students

Sharif also says scientific workshops, which ranged from ethics in research to grant writing courses, allowed him to develop as a professional and learn valuable information that is not covered in lab or coursework.

He also found the first-year study groups, which encourage interaction between new students and upper-level graduate students, to be very beneficial.

“Through this opportunity, I gained a student mentor who was one year ahead of me,” Sharif says. “His mentorship and guidance was extremely insightful. I was able to independently network with him and visit him at his lab. His advice and consultation made my first year much easier.”

Sharif is working in the lab of Yungki Park, PhD, assistant professor of biochemistry, at the Hunter James Kelly Research Institute, where his research focus is to understand the transcriptional regulatory network governing the differentiation of oligodendrocytes and central nervous system myelination, with the long-term goal of treatment discovery for demyelinating diseases.

Xiufeng Liu, PhD, professor of learning and instruction in UB’s Graduate School of Education, facilitates the IMSD programmatic evaluation as a co-investigator on the educational research grant.