SPURS: A Pipeline Program to Interest Under-Represented Students in Lab Research

By Joseph Neighbor

Every summer since 2002, disadvantaged students interested in learning about biomedical science have spent their school vacations in P&S labs. Now, one graduate of the program has defended his PhD thesis at Columbia, and another, a current PhD student at Columbia, is coordinating this summer’s program, which has the largest class in the program’s history.

Andrew Marks, MD, chair of physiology & cellular biophysics, started the Summer Program for Under-Represented Students—SPURS—to address the lack of diversity among students pursuing biomedical research. The original idea was to offer minority undergraduates majoring in biology at public colleges and universities in New York City an opportunity to spend two months during the summer being mentored by Columbia University faculty in their laboratories. “The idea for SPURS came to me after I called the chair of biology at one of the city colleges and asked him to encourage his students to apply to P&S for graduate school,” says Dr. Marks. “I was told that top minority students were being advised not to apply to Columbia because they wouldn’t be welcomed here. Instead they were going to Harvard, Yale, Berkeley and so on.”

To counteract the perception that P&S does not welcome minority graduate students Dr. Marks realized he needed to do something more than just talk to the students; he had to walk the walk. “The first summer we had 12 minority students, I hand-picked mentors for them, ran every aspect of the program by myself, and obtained permission to use funds that the Doris Duke Foundation had given for my research.”

Thirteen years and 166 SPURS students later, Dr. Marks says the program is working. “I have great colleagues now who help run the program. All of us have received emails from SPURS graduates saying that the program changed their lives. Some are now graduate students at the very best universities, including Harvard, Columbia, Einstein, and others. A very common story is that these students never dreamt they could have a chance to pursue their studies at a highly selective university. SPURS gave them confidence that they could succeed. Knowing how much the program has meant to so many students, most of whom come from incredibly underprivileged backgrounds, is a source of enormous pride and happiness. The joy goes both ways: The students gain access to a whole new world and the Columbia faculty experience an immeasurable sense of fulfillment by touching and enhancing the lives of the SPURS students.”

Michael Holsey, a Columbia PhD student, knows the value of the program firsthand. A SPURS alumnus, Mr. Holsey is coordinating this summer’s program for the fifth consecutive year. “We try to expose the students to Columbia faculty members who can be looked at as role models,” he says. “There are few minorities in biomedical research, and it helps to see someone who you can look at and say, ‘I look like them, I can see myself in their shoes, I can see a potential career path for me.’”

Mr. Holsey did not have much laboratory experience as an Amherst College student before enrolling in SPURS in 2007. In the Marks lab, he developed behavior assays to measure altered memory in mouse models of chronic stress. The experience was a revelation. “I saw what it meant to do frontline research, ask questions about the unknown, and use the best, state-of-the-art tools to answer the questions,” he says. Like all SPURS students, he learned to design experiments, write abstracts describing the results, and present his findings to the program coordinators. Perhaps just as important, he was granted an inside view of the world of biomedical research. “We are often exposed to doctors, and it’s easy for a young student to say ‘I want to be like them,’” he says, “but scientists aren’t as accessible. My first summer as a participant in the SPURS program, I didn’t have an image in my mind of what a scientist looked like.”

After graduating from Amherst in 2009, Mr. Holsey returned to the Marks lab as a research technician, before enrolling in the PhD program. For his dissertation he has worked with Jonathan Javitch, MD, PhD, professor of pharmacology (in the Center for Molecular Recognition and in physiology & cellular biophysics) to study dopamine receptor dimer formation. His role as coordinator for the SPURS program also keeps him busy as he handles the logistics of the program’s events—such as a weekly speaker series that has brought such luminaries as NYC Mayor David Dinkins and Whoopi Goldberg to talk to the students—and helps screen applicants.

“You get a lot of students who are the first in their family to go to college,” Mr. Holsey says. “Today I was looking at an application of a student who was homeless for a time, which unfortunately is not an infrequent occurrence for students in the program. He’s the first in the family to go to college and was working hard to pay for his schooling and to support his family. You get stories of people with unimaginable circumstances they had to overcome while excelling academically with tremendous motivation to push through really hard times.”

The program addresses the lack of various ethnicities among scientists and doctors. African Americans and Hispanics receive less than 5 percent of the doctorates granted in biological sciences and comprise only 6 percent of practicing physicians. While a medical school can have admissions policies that encourage a diverse student body, the school must have an applicant pool that better reflects our society.

“The biggest problem for under-represented students is the pipeline,” says Jeanine D’Armiento, MD, PhD, associate professor of medicine (in anesthesiology) and executive director of SPURS. Many under-represented students get from high school to college and have experiences that create qualified candidates for medical school and PhD programs, but far too few reach the graduate programs. “When students come to SPURS, they’re learning about science, of course, which is exciting. But equally important, they realize this is an environment where they fit in. They can do this. It changes the way they think of themselves and their potential. It’s not just experience in the lab; it’s that mentorship and that connection with the community at Columbia, which will be available to assist and advise them when they apply to the professional schools.”

SPURS, funded with an NIH grant and private donations, supports between 10 and 15 students each summer. Students are given a stipend, and out-of-town participants receive housing on the Columbia University Morningside campus for the summer. This summer’s class is the largest yet: 16 students, including students from Hunter College, NYU, Columbia, Barnard, Amherst, and a few from as far away as Florida and California. The program received a record number of applications from 94 potential participants, almost triple the number of any other year. 

Monica Goldklang, MD, SPURS co-director and assistant professor of medicine (in anesthesiology), cannot account for the increased interest. “We were delighted to receive so many applications from highly qualified students but disappointed that we had to turn down so many outstanding students because we don’t have the resources to support them,” she says. As co-director, Dr. Goldklang works with Drs. Marks and D’Armiento to select the most promising candidates and then pairs the students with faculty members doing work they might enjoy. “The program doesn’t work if it isn’t the right fit for the student. Each has different interests and backgrounds. It’s been truly amazing to witness these success stories of people with no prior research experience who end up applying to PhD programs as a result of the program.”

David Kazadi is one such candidate. Born in France to students from the Democratic Republic of Congo, his family settled in the United States in 1997. When he attended SPURS in 2004 he was a junior at Hunter College, studying chemistry. He knew he wanted to work in medicine, but was not sure in what capacity. With no biomedical research experience, he was accepted into SPURS and joined the lab of Ronald Liem, professor of pathology & cell biology. “It literally changed my life,” says Mr. Kazadi. “Suddenly, my pool of professional role models dramatically expanded. In addition, I began to grasp the centrality of biomedical science to the accomplishments of modern medicine, both past and potential. Finally, I discovered a field that allowed me, encouraged me, demanded of me to constantly ask questions.”

After college, Mr. Kazadi returned to work in Dr. Liem’s lab for a few years before enrolling in the joint MD/PhD program at Columbia in 2007. He has finished both his pre-clinical year and his dissertation for his doctorate, which focused on the mechanisms that underlie immunoglobin gene diversification. He is now completing his Major Clinical Year in the MD program.

“In med school, you’re applying what has already been discovered,” he says. “How your predecessors did things is typically how you do it. It’s very rewarding to have a direct, positive consequence on someone’s life. The impact is more or less immediate. But in research, the impact on health can come decades later. You get a sense of humility about what is known. But when an experiment works, when a hypothesis gets a response that makes sense, you get overcome with joy. You came up with an answer that wasn’t known before. You feel like you’ve contributed to the larger picture. It’s empowering.”

That sense of empowerment and purpose is perhaps the greatest reward for the SPURS program. And just as it edifies the lives of students, it also enriches the program’s faculty, who shepherd aspiring researchers down the pipeline, hopefully toward a satisfying career in medicine. “Every year Andy and I have the students present their projects to us,” says Dr. D’Armiento. “It’s not a big audience because we don’t want them to feel stress, but that day is really special for us. We see how far these kids have come, and we look at each other and say, ‘This is amazing.’ It’s the highlight of our summer.”

More information about SPURS: http://www.spurs.columbia.edu/