PREP program makes talented students even stronger doctoral candidates
While attending the annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students in Indianapolis last November, Natalie Alvarez was excited to present her Yale research on a particular type of bacteria. But she was equally happy for the opportunity to talk to some conference attendees about the Yale Post-Baccalaureate Research Education Program (PREP), which made her presence there possible.
During a lunchtime break, Alvarez, who is one of 10 Yale PREP participants this year, was speaking about the program to one person when she found herself surrounded by some eight others who were curious to know more about it.
“My favorite thing about this conference was the ability to encourage students to apply and recruit them [to PREP],” Alvarez recalls.
Each year, Yale hosts about a dozen students in PREP, which has two components: NIH PREP, which is funded by the National Institutes of Health, and the university-funded Emerging Scholars Initiative (ESI) PREP. Both programs — geared toward individuals from underrepresented minority groups, first-generation college graduates, students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, and women in some STEM fields — help recent bachelor’s degree recipients gain the research skills and academic credentials necessary to become competitive for admission to highly selective doctoral programs.
NIH PREP helps to prepare students interested in pursuing Ph.D. or M.D./Ph.D. programs in the biological and biomedical sciences, while ESI PREP is designed for prospective Ph.D. candidates in the humanities, social sciences, and sciences.
“Yale is one of few institutions in the country to offer post-baccalaureate programs across the divisions,” says Michelle Nearon, director of ESI PREP and co-director of NIH PREP. The latter program is now in its fifth year at Yale, while ESI PREP is in its third year. Both post-baccalaureate programs are typically completed in one year, and all PREP students are expected to apply to Ph.D. programs, including Yale’s, to begin graduate study following the completion of the internship.
Building skills with the help of mentors
A chief goal of NIH PREP, says the program’s co-director Anton Bennett, is to help recent college graduates build their scientific research skills.
“The strength of this program is that it captures students who are really interested in pursuing biomedical research but may not have been able to build a strong research portfolio, says Bennett, who is also the director of minority affairs for the Yale Combined Program in the Biological and Biomedical Sciences (BBS). “These students are highly motivated and just need that little bit of an extra boost to get them into graduate school.”
Participants in both NIH and ESI PREP are paired with a faculty adviser, but they also may work closely with postdoctoral and graduate students during their time in the program.
“The goal is to get them to work with as many mentors as possible, along with their primary faculty adviser,” says Nearon, who is also associate dean for graduate student development and diversity and director of the Office for Graduate Student Development and Diversity.
In addition, students in both PREP programs take part in a “boot camp” to prepare them for the GRE, the graduate school equivalent of the SAT, as well as to participate in career workshops and seminars, and graduate student social activities. All PREP participants receive a $27,200 stipend and health insurance, free course tuition, a laptop computer, and online GRE test preparation. In addition, the program covers the cost for them to attend one national conference during their year at Yale.
“The goal is to have PREP participants experience life like any first-year graduate student,” explains Nearon. “While they are not technically [Yale graduate] students and won’t receive a degree, they have the opportunity to take courses, conduct research, and get up to speed on writing their research proposals or presenting their work while also fully engaging in the social aspects of graduate student life.”
Participants in NIH PREP devote about 85% of their time conducting research in a faculty member’s laboratory. They also take one graduate-level course of their choice each semester, as well as a research ethics course, and they attend a lecture series about health disparities.
While ESI PREP participants also undertake an independent research project under the supervision of their faculty adviser, they spend more of their time in the classroom. Most take three or four courses each semester.
“Students in ESI PREP decide what courses would most benefit their future goals in collaboration with their faculty adviser, who will also review the students’ transcript to help them figure out the best plan so they can be competitive for a Ph.D. program,” says Nearon. She started ESI PREP because she saw a need for a program similar to NIH PREP that would benefit prospective doctoral students in the humanities, social sciences, and sciences. She is currently working with faculty in the economics department to expand the PREP program to students in that discipline.
Removing the barriers to opportunity
On average, about 160 college graduates apply to take part in PREP per year, and that number has been steadily growing, according to Nearon.
Tony Koleske, director of the BBS program, has served as an informal adviser to the NIH PREP program, helping to review applications and match candidates with faculty advisers, as well as offering advice to PREP participants about graduate school admissions.
“This program dovetails our bigger efforts in the BBS and on campus,” says Koleske, who is also a professor of molecular biophysics and biochemistry and neuroscience. “Our mission is to try to attract the best young students we can into our Ph.D. program and into careers in science. Different individuals approach scientific careers from all different levels of preparation. We feel strongly that the lack of research opportunities or exposure to higher-level coursework shouldn’t be a barrier for students interested in becoming professional scientists. By allowing people who are very promising to have a full-time immersive experience as a graduate student, build a research portfolio, learn career skills, and take graduate-level coursework, we hope to remove those barriers for these highly promising scientists.”
Adds Koleske, “It’s very prestigious to have this program at Yale. It’s not only good for our students, but it’s also validation that we are doing everything we can to be an inclusive campus.”
Lynn Cooley, dean of the Yale Graduate School of Arts & Sciences, says the program helps to fulfill the school’s mission.
“Our mission at the Graduate School is to seek students of the highest intellectual promise and achievement and to prepare them to be scholars, teachers, and future leaders,” Cooley says. “The PREP initiative is crucial to that mission because it helps us to identify these promising students and enables them to undertake graduate work in an inclusive and welcoming environment.”
Shavanie Prashad, a former NIH PREP participant who is now a doctoral student at Yale, says she only discovered her passion for science research in her last undergraduate year at The City College of New York, where she majored in biochemistry. She and her family immigrated to New York from Guyana after she finished high school, and she first obtained an associate’s degree in biology at LaGuardia Community College.
“I felt I needed to improve my critical thinking and ability to design experiments, in addition to my writing and presentation skills, before entering graduate school,” she says. “I applied to the PREP program to broaden my research interests, redefine my skill sets, and experience the academic and research life of graduate students.”
As a NIH PREP student, she worked in the laboratory of Daniel Colón-Ramos, associate professor of neuroscience and cell biology, doing research on the cell biology of the synapse in neurons of C. elegans.
“I treasure the mentorship from [Colón-Ramos] and postdoctoral mentor Zhao Xuan, both of whom challenged my way of thinking and approach to investigating scientific questions,” Prashad says. “I also received guidance and meaningful advice during the graduate school application and interview process from my mentors and supportive members in the lab.”
Boosting confidence levels
The reason that all PREP students are required to apply to Yale in addition to other universities, Nearon says, is so she and other PREP administrators can monitor the program’s effectiveness. Prashad believes that PREP was instrumental in helping her gain admission to the university.
“The professional development opportunities, seminars, fellowship writing, and interview workshops prepared me for graduate school. The program also boosted my confidence, challenged me to think outside the box, improved my skill set as a researcher, and pushed me beyond my comfort zone to realize my potential for scientific rigor within academia,” she says.
One of the pleasures of being involved in NIH PREP for Nii Addy Ph.D. ’07, associate professor of psychiatry, has been seeing that growth in confidence.
“PREP really gives its participants a grasp of what they are getting into and helps them gain the confidence that comes from their campus experiences and from having strong mentors,” he says. “That increased confidence has helped them as they have prepared their applications and as they’ve stepped into their graduate programs.”
Addy has hosted a PREP student in his laboratory, and he has informally mentored numerous others through the program. Among other roles, he has participated in mock graduate school interviews with PREP participants and has given them feedback on their scientific talks and presentations.
“I have devoted my time to PREP students because I know the value of mentorship and the importance for these students of seeing people in STEM fields who look like them,” he says. “I’ve received strong mentorship all the way back to my undergraduate training, through my postdoctoral training, and even during my time as a faculty member. Being one of a small number of basic science faculty of color on the medical campus, I feel it’s important for me to have an ‘open-door policy,’ where PREP students can come to me for various kinds of support.”
Gabriela Bosque, a current doctoral student at Yale and former NIH PREP participant, says she especially appreciated being among a group of students with similar backgrounds or experiences.
“It made a huge difference to be with a group of students who know what it is like to be an underrepresented minority student in STEM and are interested in becoming scientists,” says Bosque, a graduate of Cornell University who also joined Colón-Ramos’ lab. “It makes you feel more confident about your pursuit of a doctoral degree to have them as a support system through the process.”
During her time in NIH PREP, Bosque studied mechanisms of synaptic organization in development, and she created a 4-D model of six C. elegans neurons for the WormGUIDES, a virtual atlas that Colón-Ramos’ lab is creating in collaboration with other research groups. She says she is grateful for the insights and feedback Colón-Ramos gave her during the graduate school application process, as well as for his letter of recommendation. Ultimately, she would like to run her own science laboratory while teaching at a university.
Current NIH PREP student Maria Brouard, a Harvard University graduate who is an M.D./Ph.D. candidate for next year, chose to participate in NIH PREP so she could conduct research and learn synthetic chemistry. She is working in the laboratory of faculty mentor Jonathan A. Ellman, and is also paired with third-year chemistry graduate student Danielle Confair.
“[T]he people I have met through the PREP program are the greatest part of the program,” Brouard says. “It is nice to speak to so many smart people who love research. Dr. Nearon is also a great person, and I feel like PREP is a big family. Moreover, it is nice to take one class a semester to keep up with my fields of interest.”
Having a place among other scholars
Nearon meets monthly with all PREP students to keep abreast of their progress, and the entire PREP cohort gathers once a month to share their experiences and plans with her.
Integrating herself into all aspects of Yale has been an important part of the program for current ESI PREP student Kohar Avakian, a 2017 Dartmouth College graduate. In addition to her coursework and research, she is involved with the Yale Armenian Network, the Indigenous Graduate Network, and the Yale Group for the Study of Native America, and was a volunteer during the Black Solidarity Conference this month.
Avakian chose to take part in ESI-PREP because she wanted to explore the field of American studies and conduct research in a graduate setting while also receiving some guidance about the Ph.D. application process. Under the direction of her faculty adviser, historian Matthew Frye Jacobson, Avakian is exploring the intersections of race, trauma, and memory in Armenian family photographs as her Yale research project.
“Professor Jacobson’s expertise in race, immigration, and cultural history has been absolutely crucial to my understanding of this project,” says Avakian, who has taken his course on U.S. cultural history as well as two courses taught by Professor Laura Wexler, including “Visual Kinship: Families and Photographs.”
“In addition to giving me the occasion to produce my graduate school writing sample, my courses have strengthened my knowledge of historical photography and oral history research methods and pushed me to scrutinize my own approach to archival work. Perhaps most empowering about my classes has been the opportunity to share a table with such bright and passionate scholars,” Avakian adds.
Avakian says she now feels prepared for a Ph.D. program, and she has applied to doctoral programs in both American studies and history, with the goal of college teaching in the future. “I realized that confidence was the puzzle piece I was missing that ESI PREP helped me find,” she says.
Randi Martinez, a former ESI PREP participant now studying linguistics at Yale, credits PREP with solidifying her wish to pursue further study in her field.
“Before the [PREP] program, I knew I wanted to do research in linguistics, but I really did not have a clue as to what to expect in a Ph.D. program, and I didn’t have any family or friends to ask or talk to about it,” she says. “Because of the opportunity to be in the ESI PREP program, I was able to get guidance not just on the structure, requirements, and opportunities of a Ph.D. program, but also on stress management, dealing with ‘imposter syndrome,’ managing finances, staying organized, and more. … The post-baccalaureate program gave me the support and guidance that allowed me to transition to a place in which I deserve to be, despite obstacles.”
Likewise, Alvarez says that her experience working in the laboratory of Craig Roy, the Waldermar Von Zedtwitz Professor of Microbial Pathogenesis and Immunobiology, has bolstered her interest in running her own lab one day, either in an academic setting or in industry.
“Another thing I want to do,” Alvarez says, “which I can probably start in grad school, is to mentor a student — high school or undergrad — who is underrepresented in their field. NIH PREP is the main reason that I want to make sure to help out those who are underrepresented in their field; because of my positive experience, I want to share it with others.”
Nearon and Bennett are tracking the success of PREP participants over time, and note that so far, most have fully reached their goals. Of the 11 students who have completed the ESI PREP program, all are in graduate programs (10 in Ph.D. programs and one in an M.A. program). Of the 17 NIH PREP participants to date, all are in academic settings in the biomedical sciences: 13 are in Ph.D. or M.D./Ph.D. programs at Yale or other universities; one is in an M.S. program; one is in an M.D. program; and two are currently serving as research assistants in biomedical science laboratories at Yale.