CUIMC Program to Raise Diversity in Science Celebrates 15th Anniversary

October 1, 2018

The Summer Program for Underrepresented Students (SPURS) celebrated its 15th anniversary during the summer of 2017 with one of its largest classes in the program’s history: 24 college students from around the country spent two months conducting research in the labs of 23 medical center faculty members.

SPURS was created in 2002 by Andrew Marks, MD, chair of the Department of Physiology & Cellular Biophysics and the Clyde and Helen Wu Professor of Medicine, as a way to increase the number of biomedical researchers drawn from underrepresented and economically disadvantaged groups. SPURS has provided research opportunities to 236 students. Of the alumni who have graduated from college, 40 percent are pursuing or have received advanced degrees. Three SPURS alumni now hold faculty positions.

A diverse biomedical research workforce is crucial to producing the best science and addressing the medical needs of an increasingly diverse nation, says SPURS co-director Monica Goldklang, MD, assistant professor of medicine. Even though underrepresented students earn 21 percent of undergraduate degrees, they receive only 8.5 percent of the nation’s research doctoral degrees. At the faculty level, only 8 percent of research positions are held by African-Americans or Hispanics. “We’re intervening at what we think is a critical time,” says SPURS alumnus Michael Holsey, a Columbia graduate student who has been coordinating the program since 2011. Many underrepresented students in college have the potential to become scientists, he says, but for various reasons few reach graduate school. SPURS helps students in several ways. The opportunity to conduct research is a plus, because graduate schools favor applicants who have research experience beyond the classroom.

“As a low-income student, I don’t think I would have had the opportunity to do laboratory research without this program,” says Priscilla Daboni, a 2017 SPURS participant from the University of Chicago, who investigated new drug candidates for treating asthma. “SPURS takes care of room and board [all participants are housed in Columbia University dormitories], and I only had to focus on doing the research.”

SPURS is an intense research experience, showing students a path they can take to become a scientist, says SPURS executive director Jeanine D’Armiento, MD, PhD, professor of medicine. “Students tells us that their experience in the lab is eye-opening for them. The research they do is important, but it changes the way they think of themselves and their potential. They realize that they fit in.”

For Columbia student Kaylee Wedderburn-Pugh, who worked on a cellular receptor linked to Huntington’s disease, time in the lab gave her confidence. “The SPURS program allowed me to be part of a team that engages in cutting-edge translational research. In the program I have learned about lab procedures, engaged in independent research, and mentored students. The entire experience has reinforced my decision to pursue an MD/PhD.”

SPURS students also get the opportunity, through weekly seminars, to meet scientists from a variety of backgrounds. “To know that people who are very successful had to struggle earlier in life was very powerful,” says Briana Davis, a SPURS student from North Carolina Central University who spent the summer investigating how the brain integrates taste and hunger. “As a black female student, it made a big impact on me to hear from a successful black researcher that he could keep his identity as a black man and do well. Without this program, I may not have had confidence to apply to Ivy League schools for graduate work.”

Dr. Marks remains committed to ensuring the program’s future. “Knowing how much the program has meant to so many students is a source of enormous pride and happiness,” he says. “Simply put, SPURS provides opportunities that change lives.” SPURS is supported in part by a grant from the NIH and private donations that cover the costs of room and board.

As featured in Columbia Medicine