Mohamed Sharif, left, and Jamal B. Williams are among doctoral students who have obtained diversity supplement awards with help from Margarita L. Dubocovich, PhD, and the Office of Inclusion and Cultural Enhancement.

Diversity Supplement Awards a Boost for Doctoral Students

Published July 29, 2021

story by dirk hoffman

The University at Buffalo has a number of successful programs that provide career and professional development and opportunities for underrepresented students to develop into successful scientists and health professionals. 

“It is imperative that we train the next generation of underrepresented individuals to populate the workforce in health professions and science to fill high-level heath and bioscience jobs. ”
Senior associate dean for diversity and inclusion and SUNY Distinguished Professor of pharmacology and toxicology

Perhaps no better examples of this success are CLIMB — the Collaborative Learning and Integrated Mentoring in the Biosciences program, the Initiative for Maximizing Student Development (IMSD) and the Institute for Strategic Enhancement of Educational Diversity (iSEED).

These programs allow doctoral students to receive diversity supplement awards to their principal investigator’s research grants that are funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Programs Provide Mentoring, Professional Development

CLIMB, an innovative and inclusive program that provides intensive mentoring, career and professional development experiences for biosciences students from undergraduate through postdoctoral levels, as well as for junior faculty, received an award from INSIGHT into Diversity magazine in 2020.

CLIMB was founded by Margarita L. Dubocovich, PhD, senior associate dean for diversity and inclusion and SUNY Distinguished Professor of pharmacology and toxicology. She is director of the Office of Inclusion and Cultural Enhancement (Office of Inclusion) and works to achieve inclusive excellence through diversity and inclusion at the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.

Doctoral students enrolled in STEM graduate programs at UB are eligible to receive stipend, tuition and travel funds from the IMSD grant for the first two years of graduate school.

The IMSD, directed by Dubocovich, was awarded to UB in 2012 and renewed in 2017. IMSD scholars are required to complete the career and professional development workshop series offered by the CLIMB-HI (High Impact) Program, that are set up as micro credential programs and award badges. The IMSD scholars receive mentoring, and career and professional development during their doctoral program and beyond to facilitate their pathway to becoming leaders in the bioscience field.

iSEED, which is co-directed by Dubocovich and Luis A. Colón, PhD, A. Conger Goodyear Professor of chemistry, was established in 2013. The goal was to build culturally and intellectually diverse and inclusive academic communities of students, postdoctoral fellows, and faculty focused on excellence in education, engagement in research, and mentoring, and enhancement of professional development central to the UB mission.

iSEED provides top-off awards to incoming doctoral students who help to diversify the UB community. iSEED scholars complete the career and professional development workshops offered by the CLIMB program.

UB Application Rate at 100 Percent Successful

Dubocovich says there was a need to develop programs to provide pathways to success for individuals who have:

  • traditionally been underserved in the community
  • not had opportunities to attend educational institutions that prepare them in science and biomedical disciplines
  • not had the opportunity to be exposed to research

“It is imperative that we train the next generation of underrepresented individuals to populate the workforce in health professions and science to fill high-level health and bioscience jobs,” Dubocovich says. “The population of the country will be over 50 percent underrepresented individuals by 2040, 10 years earlier than originally predicted.”

Dubocovich and her staff in the Office of Inclusion support students applying for funding through the NIH, National Science Foundation or other award mechanisms by providing detailed instructions on how to prepare their specific aims, innovation and significance, and research program plan of their applications, with a focus in developing the steps needed to become successful scientists and health professionals.

“We do not know of any graduate student being turned down for a diversity supplement award to their mentor’s funded grants,” she says. “Remarkably, the successful applicants have brought close to $1.9 million to UB in the past five or six years.”

Providing a Sense of Family for Trainees

Mohamed Sharif

Mohamed Sharif is a trainee in the doctoral program in biochemistry. He is currently completing his doctoral work in the lab of James D. Bangs, PhD, Grant T. Fischer Professor and chief of microbiology and immunology, but previously worked in the lab of Yungki Park, PhD, assistant professor of biochemistry.

He received a diversity supplement award to Park’s R01 grant with the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

“Coming from a clinical research setting with minimal wet lab skills, the IMSD/CLIMB summer program helped me start the PhD Program in Biomedical Sciences (PPBS) on the right foot,” he says. “It enabled me to begin my doctoral program and get accustomed to lab life before starting classes. Academically, year one is the hardest and this setup made it easy to start classes without stressing about lab rotations.”

“The training, workshops and mentorship in the program are priceless. The knowledge I acquired from the program has made me more ambitious, allowing me to go after multiple grant submissions and build my network,” Sharif adds. “The program has helped me develop both as a young professional and scientist. But above all, it provided me with a sense of family and a place I could call home.”

Sharif says that, in general terms, a doctoral program is about the principal investigator-student relationship.

“As such, doctoral students typically don’t see past graduation until they are about to graduate. But the IMSD/CLIMB program opened my eyes to the professional world of being a scientist.”

Awards Often Lead to Bigger, Better Things

Dubocovich says it is important for students who receive diversity supplement awards to then apply and get awarded an F31 or F99/K00 grant.

“These are stellar awards that help to move the career of these students to complete their doctoral degree and move forward to postdoctoral positions,” she says.

In these grants, the students act as the principal investigator for the project. The very prestigious F99/K00 award funds two years as a graduate student and four years as postdoctoral associates with the PI of the recipient’s choice anywhere in the country.

Jennifer Schieber, PhD

Jennifer Schieber, PhD, is currently a Scientist III in research and development at Thermo Fisher Scientific in Grand Island, New York.

During her time at UB she obtained a F99/K00 grant and also participated in the IMSD/CLIMB program and says the major benefit was the “peer support system and access to research funding.”

During her doctoral program work with David Dietz, PhD, professor and chair of pharmacology and toxicology, all of her studies involved understanding the cellular mechanism of opiate use disorder, focusing on multiple cell types, including neurons and oligodendrocytes.

“In the K00 portion of my fellowship, I aimed to study how astrocytes, another cell type in the brain, regulated stress-induced depression,” she notes.

Schieber says the Office of Inclusion helped her with her successful application for a diversity supplement award by providing a footprint of what should go into each element of the application.

“At the time of applying for the F99/K00, this was a relatively new award and not much information was available so I had to turn to outside sources,” she says.

Mentors, Peers Spur Professional Development

Jamal B. Williams

Jamal B. Williams, a trainee in the doctoral program in neuroscience, works in the lab of Zhen Yan, PhD, SUNY Distinguished Professor of physiology and biophysics.

“Our lab aims to identify and target molecular markers responsible for aberrant social and cognitive behavior,” he says. “Specifically, my research has largely focused on using large-scale genomic changes in neurodevelopmental and neurodegenerative disorders, to investigate the underlying disease mechanisms that lead to synaptic and behavioral dysregulation.”

Williams says he wanted to jump-start his doctoral training when he arrived at UB so he enrolled in CLIMB programming as an iSEED scholar.

After a two-week intensive wet lab training regimen, he had the opportunity to begin an early extended rotation under Dietz.

“These experiences helped me to carve out the path I intended to take for my graduate studies,” he says.

Williams says during his time as a CLIMB scholar he attended regular meetings where he was exposed to scientific communication and grant writing workshops.

“These experiences were critical in my ability to apply for and receive two consecutive diversity supplement awards,” he says. “I also applied for and received an F99/K00 as part of the NIH D-SPAN Blueprint initiative; a very competitive award.” Williams is now one of 18 young researchers across the United States selected to receive this prestigious six-year award. 

“In my first attempt my application was not discussed, however, after making revisions with my mentor, we resubmitted the application and were awarded a score of 20!,” Williams notes.

Williams says the aid and support he received from his mentors, peers and CLIMB program made a huge difference in his development as a young scientist.

“Many of the resources I have received are available to any student, and are ultimately as useful as one needs them to be,” he notes. “But you have to try and you have to put the time in to maximize these opportunities.”

Indispensable Workshops on Grant Applications

Anthony J. Jones, PhD

Anthony J. Jones, PhD, is a life scientist in the Office of Air and Radiation at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. He is a member of the ambient standards group that works with the EPA administrator to review National Ambient Air Quality Standards.

He earned his doctoral degree in neuroscience while at UB and received a diversity supplement award on a grant led by Dubocovich and Rajendram Rajnarayanan, PhD, and then subsequently applied for and received a two-year fellowship award in pharmacology and toxicology from the PhRMA Foundation.

The research focused on screening for environmental compounds such as chemicals found in pesticides that can disrupt circadian rhythms, creating a higher risk for diabetes, obesity and other metabolic disorders.

Jones participated in CLIMB workshops that covered topics such as resume/CV and grant writing and was given access to free tutoring sessions.

The CLIMB program conducts a series of workshops specifically geared toward education on how to find, write, and submit for grants and fellowships, Jones says.

“For example, in such a workshop, we would be taught how to write a ‘specific aims page’ and then we would be tasked with writing one and then on another day we would critique our separate works as a group,” he says.

“These workshops were invaluable because you would never learn how to do this in a traditional university class.”