The Summer of Translational Aging Research for Undergraduates (STAR U)
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, by 2030 one in every five U.S. residents will be retirement age. As the aging population increases, age-related illnesses such as Alzheimer’s disease and other degenerative illnesses pose a substantial public health problem. Moreover, it is well documented that older adults from racially and ethnically minoritized groups and lower socioeconomic backgrounds have an increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. The eight-week Summer of Translational Aging Research for Undergraduates (STAR U) Program at Columbia University Irving Medical Center, housed in the Taub Institute for Research on Alzheimer's Disease and the Aging Brain and the Department of Neurology, and funded by the National Institute on Aging and the Alzheimer’s Association, intends to increase the number of scientists from diverse and systemically excluded groups who are committed to researching the aging brain. The program provides 10-12 students per year with: 1) individual, tailored research mentorships in the neuroscience of aging; 2) a variety of translational learning opportunities; and 3) professional networking and social experiences. Ultimately, STAR U aims to enhance the field of aging and age-related health disparities by infusing it with well-trained neuroscientists from diverse backgrounds.
In a recent conversation with members of the Office of Development, STAR U’s leadership team and an alum of the program explained what makes STAR U unique. Adam M. Brickman, PhD, Professor of Neuropsychology (in Neurology, the Taub Institute for Research on Alzheimer's Disease and the Aging Brain and the Gertrude H. Sergievsky Center) and co-director of STAR U explained, “it's billed as a summer program, but it really is more about establishing much longer term relationships among the students and the mentors as the scholars progress ultimately into the field of neuroscience or adjacent disciplines.”
He went on to share background about the program, “we've been doing some version of the program informally, for about 14 years or so, but it was always ad hoc. We always attracted student volunteers over the summer months and tried to structure their experience a little bit, but our comprehensive training, mentorship, and development program was not formalized until we received an NIH grant to support it.”
Kiana Chan, STAR U Program coordinator, explained, “what is unique about STAR U is the sense of community that the students have with each other. A lot of the students are coming from all over the U.S. A lot of them have never had research experience or an opportunity to participate in such an intensive community building.”
In order to recruit STAR U applicants from minoritized backgrounds, the STAR U Program Coordinator reaches out to a range of public and private undergraduate institutions throughout the US, including universities in the CUNY and SUNY systems, community colleges, Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Hispanic-serving institutions, and Tribal Colleges and Universities.
One graduate of the program, Udell Holmes, shared his reflections on participating in STAR U, “I was part of the first cohort of STAR U summer of 2019. Overall, my experience was amazing. I loved it…I hadn't ever been in the field of aging beforehand... That's what the program's all about is to get people interested and excited about dementia and aging research. And I fell in love with it.”
When asked if the program helped shape his current path, Holmes replied, “I think ultimately, being able to meet all the amazing researchers at Columbia and getting to work with them in the labs really showed me like, ‘okay, this is something that I can do and be very happy and content in my life.’ So yeah, it definitely changed my career path and it also really helped show me that in research specifically that there are diverse groups out there, it's not just filled with all Caucasian researchers, that there are diverse groups that are tolerant and respectful, the culture that I didn't really know, existed.”
About his current path, Holmes explained, “Right now I am a student at the University of Florida in the clinical health psychology doctoral program, with specialization in neuropsychology. It's my first year in the PhD program. We’re interested in health disparities in cognitive aging and pain. I want to get into neuroimaging research to study how correlates of the structure and function of the brain differ between racial and ethnic groups. We want to discover what is causing these disparities and how we can find creative ways to mitigate them.”
Holmes also noted a distinct feature of the program: “STAR U was a unique internship in the sense that, they really stressed that once you're out of the program, ‘we still hope to foster your growth development in this field.’ So, they supported our travel to the International Neuropsychological Society annual meeting in 2019 in Denver, Colorado, where we got to present the research we completed in the summer.
In order to continue to sustain the program and the long-term professional relationships between program participants and mentors, funding is critical. Kiana Chan explained, “So a big part of our program and our ultimate goal is to keep in touch with these students and make sure that they're able to go on and continue in science and research.” Chan elaborated, “There's a lot of barriers that prevent them from moving forward at times, for example, something as small as applying to medical school, applying to PhD programs, like making sure that they have that continued level of support and financial support to be able to do what they ultimately would love to do, but because of structural barriers, it can be difficult for them to obtain those goals.”
“…because of that, Adam, Stephanie and I have been working together to see if we can secure additional funding in the form of small grants for the students to help them with some of the challenges associated with COVID. I think a lot of them had very difficult times during COVID because of financial hardships.”
Addressing the needs of the program, Dr. Brickman explained, “we talk a lot about the investment that it takes into each individual student. And, oftentimes we're referring to time mentoring, the work that it takes to provide training in certain scientific areas, the networking and all these related activities. But the reality is it takes a tremendous amount of financial resources too, a literal financial investment. Because of the support we receive from the National Institute of Aging and the Alzheimer’s Association, we are able to provide students with a stipend, and to cover expenses like travel, housing, meals, and a number of social events that are designed to enhance team building. But the investment doesn't really stop over the summer. We've learned the importance of maintaining really concentrated involvement in each of the students as they continue to develop and pursue their academic dreams.”
Fortunately, there are some graduating participants who feel like a career in neuroscience is feasible, thanks to the mentorship that STAR U provides. Following her participation in STAR U and lab experience through the program, one student remarked, “Joining and being welcomed into the Troy lab was one highlight of my summer [Dr. Troy is one of the mentors in the program]. Not only was I welcomed immediately, but all and any questions were also welcome…My first week in the lab, I watched a fellow Black woman successfully defend her thesis, a sight that I never would have predicted I would be able to see. The Troy lab not only helped developed me into a more competitive scientist, but also taught me confidence, patience, and gave me hope that I too can one day obtain my doctorate. This research experience not only reaffirmed my interest in aging, but also gave me tools on how pursuing a PhD can capitalize on that passion of mine.”