Iowa Biosciences Academy encourages underrepresented students to attend graduate school
Wednesday, February 10, 2016

When Maria Nunez-Hernandez arrived on the University of Iowa campus in August 2013, she didn’t yet know the academic opportunities awaiting her.

A first-generation college student, the Marshalltown native liked biology and chemistry in high school because the subjects were fun and came naturally to her. But she didn’t know what she could do with those interests in college—that is, until she heard about the Iowa Biosciences Academy.

The IBA introduces mostly underrepresented undergraduates to the sciences and prepares them to enter graduate school. Students receive wide-ranging assistance, including paid research work with faculty mentors, career counseling, and help with graduate school applications.

The goal is to map the vastness of the university’s educational landscape by pinpointing students’ academic interests and helping them flourish in their chosen fields.

“It really opens up their eyes, that this large research enterprise exists on campus,” says Lori Adams, co-director of the IBA, along with physics and astronomy professor Vince Rodgers. “It changes everything. You walk in (to the university) with one idea how the world works, and you walk out with a completely different idea.”

Nunez-Hernandez, a junior majoring in biochemistry, can attest to that.

After initially disregarding some IBA literature, Nunez-Hernandez met with Adams at the beginning of her freshman year. Adams told her that she could supplement her learning in the classroom by doing laboratory research. Adams also mentioned that Nunez-Hernandez could continue her studies beyond a bachelor’s degree.

“I didn’t know what a Ph.D. was,” said Nunez-Hernandez, whose parents emigrated from Mexico when she was a child and have little education beyond the eighth grade. “I guess in high school, no one talked about it, so I wasn’t aware of that kind of thing—at school or at home. I thought it sounded great.”

She realized she could dream bigger.

The IBA started in 1999, with the goal of training the next generation of scientists from segments of the population that traditionally have not been well represented. In 16 years, more than 100 students have obtained a bachelor’s degree in a STEM field, and 48 students have gone on to graduate school. The program has partnered with all but one college at the UI, and students have earned degrees in a dozen majors. The National Institutes of Health, the UI’s Office of the Vice President for Research and Economic Development, and the university’s Chief Diversity Office fund the program, which is up for renewal in January.

The emphasis is on helping students successfully navigate their academic paths and get ready for graduate school. Yet, there are other dimensions: Students attend weekly seminars, for credit, on topics ranging from how to communicate their research to how to compile their curriculum vitae. There are paid summer research opportunities, with housing included. Graduate students in counseling psychology, led by professor Saba Ali in the College of Education, help IBA students identify the values, skills, and interests they have in a particular career.

In sum, the organizers seek to support their young scholars at every turn.

“It’s like the dot that connects all these other places at the university,” Adams says. “Part of this is career exploration and helping students decide what they want to do.”

Adams knows how overwhelming the collegiate experience can be.

She enrolled at the University of Illinois, a bright-eyed girl from central Illinois who graduated in a class of 34 people. She became aware of research by accident after taking a job cleaning equipment in a crop-sciences lab her first semester. Within a year, she was helping out on an experiment and became a published author as an undergraduate.

“Most students are pretty freaked out about doing research,” Adams says. “What motivates me is seeing those students and knowing they may be similar to me.”

Nunez-Hernandez credits the IBA with her scholastic development. The Dean’s List student works in professor Madeline Shea’s lab, where she’s studying calcineurin, a protein that activates the release of T-cells, a type of white blood cell essential to humans’ ability to ward off disease. In November, she presented her research at the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students in Seattle.

The 21-year-old will be applying to graduate schools next year.

“I guess it’s like I always say, ‘I wouldn’t be where I am if it weren’t for the IBA,’” Nunez-Hernandez says. “I wouldn’t be in a lab, and my plans wouldn’t be this way. It opened up a career path and planned my future.”