Harris-Stowe State University is developing a Biotechnology Certificate Program with help from the National Science Foundation.
The NSF awarded the historically Black institution a three-year, $342,699 grant to focus on providing research opportunities, experience and mentors to its predominantly Black students. About 40% of African American college students who study science, technology, engineering and math switch their majors before graduating.
Harris-Stowe professors say the program, set to begin this fall, could keep Black students focused on such courses and prepare them for rewarding careers in fields.
“Classically STEM jobs have been dominated by white people. And going forward, as more and more of these jobs open up, that has to change,” said Scott Horrell, an assistant professor of biology at Harris-Stowe. “So, what this grant does in the bigger picture is help contribute to that.”
The grant-funded program aims to expose students to bioinformatics, genetic engineering and neuroscience and other disciplines, and give them hands-on experience. It will require a two-year commitment and fast-track students into biotechnology jobs while they are pursuing a degree.
Horrell said the program will give students a competitive edge should they apply for the abundance of biotechnology jobs in the St. Louis region.
“I want them to have a piece of the pie,” said Horrell, the grant’s principal administrator. “I want them to be in a position to really succeed.”
For the first year of the grant, Horrell and his team plan to develop advanced biotechnology courses for the program, pilot experiments and purchase equipment. In the second year, students will complete coursework and research. In the third year, students will have the opportunity to present their findings at various seminars.
African Americans have been excluded from STEM education because of limited access to programs in underserved communities, Harris-Stowe professors said. Black students often are deterred from positions in the workforce because they lack research experience and have not had Black instructors and professional mentors.
Many Black people come to college from high schools that did not focus on STEM nor were they exposed to Black STEM teachers, said Carmel Martin-Fairey, an assistant professor of biology at Harris-Stowe.
“So many of our students never enter the pipeline because they never been shown,” she said.
Martin-Fairey said the certificate program will provide students with mentors of color in biotechnology, an advantage she didn’t have while seeking her doctorate in behavioral neuroscience from Michigan State University.
Harris-Stowe professors hope the program will propel students into careers in biology, neuroendocrinology, physiology, genetics, bioinformatics and academia.
“After completing our certificate program, we hope that they’ll have a skill set that will make them really marketable for things like graduate school if they want to stay in academia or really make them work ready, so they can go straight into a neuroscience field lab and do the really complicated technical work that needs to be done,” Martin-Fairey said.
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