Steven McAllister’s students conduct West Nile virus research using a biosafety level 2 hood to safely handle blood-borne pathogens and conduct blood tests.
The research is critical. Yet, until a few short years ago, wasn’t possible in Wyoming.
“Instead of talking about conducting research conceptually in their classrooms, our students have gained first-hand experience,” says McAllister, an associate professor of biology and microbiology at Central Wyoming College in Riverton. “I marvel at what my students are doing now. I didn’t get to do these things until graduate school.”
It’s all become reality thanks to a five-year, $16.9 million National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant awarded to the University of Wyoming in 2009 that has allowed UW’s IDeA Networks for Biomedical Research (INBRE) program to create a biomedical education and research network with six of the state’s community colleges. The network is designed to better tackle cardiovascular disease, obesity and Type 2 diabetes in a heavily rural state.
The grant, the largest in university history until this summer, when UW received a five-year, $20 million National Science Foundation grant to research various aspects of the state’s hydrology, provides educational and outreach opportunities, as well as collaborations for UW faculty and UW and community college students. The program also supports UW undergraduate students working with biomedical researchers and UW scientists collaborating with community college partners.
“We’ve taken six community colleges, where all they did [previously] was teach, and now four have research labs and two—Casper College and Laramie County Community College—have collaborative projects with faculty on campus here,” says Robert “Scott” Seville, Wyoming INBRE’s program director and associate dean of UW’s Outreach School.
“Obviously, at the community college level, our focus is teaching,” says Rob Milne, a chemistry instructor and science area coordinator at Sheridan College. “What INBRE has allowed us to do is to support students in engaging research for the first time. Their eyes have been completely opened to the world and possibilities of research.”
UW is one of 24 institutions funded through the NIH program. The intent of INBRE funding is to enhance biomedical research capacity; expand and strengthen the research capabilities of biomedical faculty; and provide access to biomedical resources for promising undergraduate students throughout the eligible states.
“With this award, we were able to synchronize research efforts on campus and bring expertise together,” says Jun Ren, program director of Wyoming INBRE and associate dean of pharmacology. “We were able to recruit and hire new faculty. It helps to make the program more sustainable in the long run.”
He adds, “The research we are doing moves forward a teeny step at a time. Ten years from now, the outcomes could be monumental.”
Four years into the grant, INBRE has supported more than 300 students, with more than 50 percent of them choosing to pursue baccalaureate and/or graduate degrees and careers in the biomedical field, says Seville. Ten UW and eight UW/Casper College students received undergraduate research awards for summer 2012.
In the past two years, Sheridan College has had six students participate in research, earn their associate degrees and transfer to UW, Milne says.
In Riverton, McAllister says one of his students received a Jack Kent Cooke Scholarship and will use the funding to study physiology at UW. He says another student is attending physician’s assistant school at the University of New England in Maine and “wants to come back to be a physician’s assistant in rural Wyoming.”
INBRE hopes the enthusiasm for broadening biomedical careers also will trickle down to the K-12 level, creating a pipeline of future researchers for Wyoming. To garner interest from younger generations, INBRE has a created a series of YouTube-like videos (wyominginbre.org/index.php/videos) that show UW researchers studying biomedicine.
“We want to show high school and middle school students that scientists aren’t pointy-headed people in white coats,” Seville says.