In the effort to increase diversity in the field of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), PROMISE: Maryland’s Alliance for Graduate Education and the Professoriate (AGEP), looms large. Using resources from University System of Maryland institutions, the initiative aims to connect graduate students and postdoctoral scholars from under-represented ethnicities to professional development opportunities and pathways to careers in academia.
One of the program’s signature events is the PROMISE AGEP Research Symposium and Professional Development Conference, which was held Feb. 16 at the University of Maryland, College Park. About 20 students, faculty, and staff from the University of Maryland, Baltimore (UMB) participated in the daylong event at the Adele H. Stamp Student Union, and they left feeling enlightened, empowered, and thankful.
The conference consisted of research presentations, “TED-style” and “lightning-round” talks, poster sessions, and professional development workshops, followed by a closing reception and awards ceremony. Erin Golembewski, PhD, senior associate dean of the UMB Graduate School, was a moderator and helped lead the University’s contingent along with TaShara Bailey, PhD, MA, UMB’s PROMISE director and diversity fellow on the President’s Diversity Advisory Council.
Dominique Earland, a scholar in the University of Maryland School of Medicine’s (UMSOM) STAR-PREP program, said attending the conference was a win-win, providing what she called “a wonderful learning experience outside of the lab and reinforcing the supportive, inclusive culture of UMB.”
Earland found the conference educational and said it enhanced her professional development. “I not only listened to various STEM research presentations, I also was able to network with other under-represented minorities at different stages of their education and training,” she said. “Additionally, the professional development workshop offered insight into the future. I hope my career can incorporate research and grass-roots community development.”
Scholars, PhD Candidates Make Their Mark
Earland was joined by six other scholars and the academic program specialist, Leanne Simington, from STAR-PREP (Science Training for Advancing Biomedical Research Postbaccalaureate Research Education Program), a one-year mentored training initiative designed to encourage and prepare recent baccalaureate graduates from under-represented groups in the biomedical sciences for successful entry into a top-notch graduate program. STAR-PREP mentors Bret Hassel, PhD, and Gregory Carey, PhD, faculty members from the UMSOM Department of Microbiology and Immunology, served as faculty judges for the day. Harry Choi, PhD, postdoctoral fellow in the Center for Shock, Trauma and Anesthesiology Research at UMSOM, also served as a judge.
One of the scholars, Mc Millian Ching, was awarded first place for his lightning-round talk, where participants were tasked with condensing their research goals and findings into two-minute oral presentations. Ching, whose presentation was titled “Functional Analysis of PGE2 Pathway Members MRP4 and EP4 in Ovarian Cancer,” praised the University System of Maryland’s commitment to diversity in the sciences and hopes it will extend to all fields of study.
“The PROMISE AGEP Research Symposium is a platform for budding scholars coming from under-represented backgrounds to showcase their ability to do and present research on par with their well-represented counterparts,” Ching said.
Amanda Labuza, a PhD candidate in the neuroscience program at the Graduate School, earned first place for her oral research presentation, “Understanding Regulation of Intercellular Calcium.”
She also presented a research poster, “NOVA: Providing Graduate Students with Outreach Opportunities to Baltimore.” NOVA (Neuroscience Outreach and Volunteer Association) works with programs and Baltimore schools to teach young students about neuroscience and increase their enthusiasm for studying science.
“I had the opportunity to practice presenting my data in a clear, concise manner to a general audience,” Labuza said. “This provided experience in removing jargon and making my research clear to the public. In my advocacy work, it is important to be able to quickly explain research to non-scientists.”
Jackline Joy Martín Lasola, a PhD candidate in the UMSOM Department of Microbiology and Immunology, also presented a research poster, “Interrogating the Role of Interleukin-1 Receptor-Associated Kinases (IRAKs) in Mediating Response to Immunotherapies for Solid Tumors.”
Professional Development Workshops Offer Perspective
Edith Hernandez, another STAR-PREP scholar along with symposium attendees Hilary Bright, Kaia Amoah, Elena Muse, and Kayla Rayford, enjoyed the professional development workshops in particular. She said the panel speakers brought a refreshing perspective on what should be expected when preparing for a career in academia. UMSOM assistant professors Cara Felter, PT, DPT, Department of Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation Science, and Danya Khoujah, MBBS, Department of Emergency Medicine, lent their expertise to the panel.
“Many unique ideas were shared and discussed among rising researchers in the field of STEM, including a training focus on teaching and mentoring the next generations of minority scientists,” Hernandez said. “The event showcased a tight-knit minority enrichment community that encouraged scientific discussion among peers and professional development in academia.”
Da’Kuawn Johnson, an MD/PhD student at UMSOM, worked as a volunteer at the conference and said he appreciated the way it was structured. “The organizers were careful to provide a snapshot at each level in the process — from postdoctoral fellow to professorship and administration in academia,” he said. “I think that attention to detail was much needed to demystify the route to professorship for minority students.”
Added Earland: “The workshops also discussed the transition from postdoc to first faculty appointment. Several speakers were professors, and each had a unique perspective on the value of teaching. Specifically, Dr. Khoujah encouraged the audience to find ways to gain teaching experience earlier rather than later.”
Johnson said he was moved during a professional development panel by comments from John T. Bullock, PhD, MRP, a Baltimore City councilman and former professor in the Department of Political Science at Towson University.
“The quote that resonated with me was, ‘There is a lot of work to be done and not a lot of people who are willing to do it. If you want to do more, ask for more. You will be surprised at the number of yeses you will receive,’” Johnson said. “I believe it is very important for students at our stage to know that people actually will listen to us and that we can feel comfortable to ask for what we want.
— Lou Cortina