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Bridging the Gap Brings Minorities to Keck School

Bridging the Gap Brings Minorities to Keck School
Rutgers University student Eunice Martins, left, shares the Bridging the Gap program’s opening day events with Ita Laird-Offringa, who is helping coordinate the students and faculty.

A new effort to attract top minority students to the Keck School of Medicine of USC brought 12 undergraduate students to the Health Sciences campus this summer.

The Bridging the Gaps: Bench to Bedside Summer Research Program, the first of its kind at USC, provides an opportunity to outstanding minority students to gain exposure to the Keck School’s research and clinical programs – and hopefully choose to pursue their medical or graduate studies at the school.

“This program is our attempt to attract talented underrepresented minority students, especially African-American students, to the USC campus,” said Henri Ford, vice dean of medical education for the school. “For the longest time, we really haven’t been able to increase the number of African Americans inside the medical school or in biomedical research. Through this program, very talented students from some of the best universities will get exposed to the science, mentoring and outstanding faculty we have.”

The students will conduct research for eight weeks in the laboratories of Keck School faculty members who will serve as mentors. Students will be provided with both a clinical and basic science perspective. In addition, all students will attend weekly seminars on health disparities and receive formal instruction in basic physiology and biostatistics.

“The resources [for the program] became available this year through the help of Carmen A. Puliafito, Henri Ford, Joyce Richey and Erin Yamauchi,” said Ita Laird-Offringa, director of Programs in Biomedical and Biological Sciences at USC.

In addition to the research component of the program, students attend workshops on financial aid, understanding the admission process to medical and/or graduate school, test-taking skills, organizational skills, time management and career choices.

Summer students also are paired with medical and graduate students who will serve as peer mentors. Student mentors help organize weekend and evening social outings, including community service outreach.

Matching promising students with the right Keck School mentors is an important part of the program. Adam Ross, a student at the University of San Francisco, is paired with Robert Chow, associate professor of physiology and biophysics.

“In my lab, we work in the area of diabetes – generally speaking, how cells control the substances they secrete,” Chow explained. Ross has a personal interest in Chow’s research, as he has type 1 diabetes.

“Right now, our country is in dire need of more young, energetic scientists – people who really want to solve major health problems,” Chow said. “I don’t know why, but for the last 30 to 40 years, it seems many of the promising students have been going to Wall Street. I think we need to do more recruiting because our scientific community does not have a proportionate number of minority people in positions of power or in research.”

For this first summer session, research positions were available in metabolic diseases, oncology, cardiovascular, neuroscience, immunology, virology, hematology and stem cell research.

Cristian Carrillo, a student at California State University, Monterey Bay, is interested in pursuing an M.D. to work within the community. He’s been paired with Lourdes Baezconde-Garbanati, an associate professor at the Institute for Prevention Research, to work on her My L.A. program for minority youth who have problems with obesity.

“I feel that the Bridging the Gap program fits with everything I want to accomplish in my career,” Carrillo said. “I want to make an impact in someone’s life, as well as getting the research experience.”

If early student response is any indication, the program should be a success.

“There’s so much collaborative research going on,” said Eunice Martins, a public health student at Rutgers University who hopes to study neuroscience. “Something really amazing is going to go down here, and I want to be part of it.”

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