New program will mentor and train students underrepresented in genomics research

Students from the BD2K program stand in front of a research poster.
Students participants in the Big Data to Knowledge (BD2K) Initiative, a similar program hosted at UCSC from 2015 to 2020, present research they conducted during a summer session.

The UC Santa Cruz Genomics Institute will partner with California State University, Monterey Bay (CSUMB) and the University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras (UPRRP) Campus to mentor and provide genomics research experience for students from these two hispanic-serving institutions as part of a new program from the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI). 

The inaugural program, called the Genome Research Experiences to Attract Talented Undergraduates into the Genomics Field to Enhance Diversity (GREAT) program, was established to provide students from diverse backgrounds opportunities to conduct research and receive career training from large, research-intensive schools.

CSUMB and UPRRP were selected to receive a total of $3.35 million over five years to support their students’ participation in this program. UC Santa Cruz, which is also a hispanic-serving institution, is the only university that will partner with both of the funded institutions. 

CSUMB’s program, under the leadership of Associate Professor Nathaniel Jue and Assistant Professor Shahidul Islam, is partnered exclusively with UCSC and will send about six students per year to UC Santa Cruz. Students from UPRRP, where the program will be led by Professor José García-Arrarás, will have the opportunity to conduct research at several other universities, which will include one to two students at UCSC per year. 

The visiting students will participate in a paid summer internship program in which they contribute directly to research in labs associated with the UC Santa Cruz Genomics Institute. During the summer session, they will conduct research, build relationships with faculty and staff, explore whether they might want to pursue graduate research at UCSC, learn about science communication, and participate in career development workshops to prepare for graduate school and industry.

“We take a lot of pride in the fact that when our students leave here, they know that they've actually contributed to research,” said Zia Isola, Director of the UCSC Genomics Institute Office of Diversity Programs and main architect of the UCSC summer program. “In some cases, that research will continue into the academic year and beyond, and the students will continue to contribute data and sometimes even be included as authors on publications.” 

This new program follows UCSC and CSUMB’s successful collaboration during a similar National Institutes of Health program called the Big Data to Knowledge (BD2K) Initiative, which was a five-year program focused on training students in the field of computational genomics that ran from 2015 to 2020. From that experience, Isola said the UCSC Genomics Institute gained an increased focus on making sure the labs’ principal investigators, postdocs, and graduate students are trained in inclusive pedagogy and are prepared to provide the best mentorship they can for visiting students. They also aim to emphasize cultivating a sense of belonging and strengthening the students’ science identities. 

“Virtually all of the students who participate in this will be first-generation college students from underrepresented populations, who may not have seen role models that look like them, so it's not always easy to feel that sense of belonging,” Isola said. “We want them to come away with that feeling of, ‘I do belong here, and if I choose this as my career path, it's something that's completely accessible to me.’”