By Siv Schwink
“Education is the great equalizer of the conditions of [humankind].”
When University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign Founder Professor of Physics Jun Song speaks of the need for greater investment in the training of underrepresented groups in the computational sciences, he often begins with this inspirational quote from Horace Mann, 19th-century advocate for public education. Song then goes on to point out, education isn’t a great equalizer without equal opportunity.
“The historic disparity of access to scientific education means that today, we need to provide more than equal opportunity to underrepresented groups,” asserts Song. “The more mathematical and computational skills a discipline requires, the lower the enrollment of students from underrepresented groups—there is plenty of historical data that reflects this disparity of access to the fields of biomedical data science and quantitative biology. Our FUTURE-MINDS-QB program will help by equalizing access to high-level, rigorous training for participants and by streamlining the PhD application process here at UIUC through our partnership with Fisk University.”
Song is the program director of the newly founded bridge program, FUTURE-MINDS-QB, which stands for Fisk-UIUC Training of Under-Represented Minds in Data Science and Quantitative Biology. Just announced in July, the program has been awarded a $1.3M 5-year T-32 training grant by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS), a member organization of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Chemistry at Illinois faculty, including Cathy Murphy, Martin Gruebele, Hee-Sun Han, Stephen Sligar, Satish Nair, and Rohit Bhargava, will participate in the FUTURE-MINDS-QB program.
The program will streamline a path from a master’s degree at Fisk University, a historically Black university in Nashville, to a doctoral degree at UIUC. Chemistry alumnus St. Elmo Brady, the first African-American to obtain a PhD degree in chemistry in the United States was a graduate of Fisk University, one of the four Historically Black Colleges and Universities where he helped establish chemistry programs.
The FUTURE-MINDS-QB program offers two tracks from a master’s degree program at Fisk University to a UIUC doctoral degree program. One track includes a traditional two-year master’s program. The program additionally establishes a new 4+1 master’s track at Fisk—students enrolled in this track will complete relevant master’s courses during their senior year to enable finishing a master’s program in just one year. The 4+1 track will require applicants to have participated in a formal summer program of preparatory research and workshops at UIUC as undergraduates enrolled at Fisk.
Participants enrolled in Fisk master’s programs in biology, data science, chemistry, or physics will get the chance to strengthen their doctoral-program prerequisites and to reinforce their understanding of core scientific concepts, in preparation for interdisciplinary research integrating computation, theory, physical sciences, and biology. Faculty mentors at Fisk come from the Departments of Biology, Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Chemistry, Computer Science, Data Science, Mathematics, and Physics.
At UIUC, FUTURE-MINDS-QB involves faculty from the Departments of Bioengineering, Chemistry, Computer Science, Physics, Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, Cell and Developmental Biology, Biochemistry, Microbiology, Molecular and Integrative Physiology, and Crop Sciences.
Built on a longstanding Fisk-UIUC partnership
At UIUC, Song’s co-PI on the NIGMS grant is Bioengineering and Electrical and Computer Engineering Professor Stephen Boppart, a Grainger Distinguished Chair in Engineering and executive associate dean and chief diversity officer in Carle Illinois College of Medicine.
"We look forward to partnering with our colleagues from Fisk University to establish this unique pathway that will train more students from underrepresented groups in the quantitative sciences and allow them to pursue their interests in biomedical data science and quantitative biology,” says Boppart. “With this pathway, we will develop the supported and mentored environment for students to realize their aspirations toward the doctoral degree and the many opportunities that will follow in their careers."
Song and Boppart are collaborating with two co-PIs at Fisk University, including Fisk Computer Science Associate Professor Lei Qian. Qian points to the strong ties and shared goals among the FUTURE-MINDS-QB faculty at the two universities, saying he expects the new bridge program will help to decrease the gap in historically underrepresented groups working in biological data science.
“In the past six years, Fisk and UIUC built a strong relationship through the National Institutes of Health’s Big Data to Knowledge (BD2K) program,” Qian says. “The FUTURE-MINDS-QB program will reinforce this coalition and establish a pipeline for training underrepresented graduate students in quantitative life sciences and physics, ultimately increasing the diversity of doctoral researchers in these areas. I am looking forward to working with my colleagues at UIUC and Fisk to achieve these goals.”
Fisk Life and Physical Sciences Professor Lee Limbird, who was dean of the Fisk School of Natural Science, Mathematics, and Business, is also a co-PI on the grant. Limbird credits her colleagues at Fisk with having helped to build this new bridge for Fisk students.
“Drs. Qian, Nelms, Ramanathan, and Damo mentored students collaborating with UIUC in an NIH-funded Big Data to Knowledge research training project, which laid the foundation for this exciting master’s-to-PhD bridge program in quantitative biology,” she notes. “As always, I am proud to enjoy Fisk's community of faculty and student colleagues who are chipping away at a better future tense!”
Illinois Physics Outreach Coordinator Dr. Sharlene Denos will serve as FUTURE-MINDS-QB program manager. She shares, “I have really enjoyed working with Fisk University students and faculty over the past couple of years through our summer research program. Fisk is an excellent school with a rich history and many famous alumni, including W.E.B. Dubois, Ida B. Wells, and late Congressman John Lewis, who organized lunch counter sit-ins with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee while he was a student there.
“Fisk has also been a trailblazer in terms of training excellent Black scientists, including St. Elmo Brady, who received his undergraduate training at Fisk before coming to the University of Illinois and making history as the first African-American to receive a doctorate in chemistry. I am very honored to be a part of this program and to strengthen the partnership between Fisk and UIUC STEM departments.”
A team effort and broad support
For Song, who has for many years worked on diversity-enhancing undergraduate-training programs in biological big-data science, the new bridge program is the realization of a long-held goal to extend these efforts to the graduate level. He points out that this new effort and the prior Fisk-UIUC collaborative programs have been and will continue to be successful, only because they receive broad support from administrators, research centers, and faculty on both campuses. In fact, when funding ran out for the BD2K undergraduate training program, a five-year extension was funded by the UIUC Office of the Chancellor and the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research and Innovation (OVCRI).
“We have extensive support from the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology (IGB), which is heavily involved in the early stage of training undergraduates. Likewise, the High-Performance Biological Computing (HPCBio) group at the Roy J. Carver Biotechnology Center has been key in training undergrads and will continue to offer support to the graduate-level program.
“The UIUC Institute for Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, & Access (IDEA Institute) has agreed to continue supporting our Fisk-UIUC collaborative programs by teaching students effective time management and other professional skillsets. I also want to acknowledge financial support from three units on the UIUC campus. The Grainger College of Engineering has offered us a professional programmer who will build a new longitudinal trainee tracking system. The College of Liberal Arts & Sciences is contributing funds to run the program. And the OVCRI is one of the major contributors to this initiative, providing partial funding for Dr. Denos’s salary and graduate-student research assistantships.
“I'd also like to acknowledge the people who helped me to prepare the grant application, which was quite extensive and represents many hours of work. Illinois Physics Director of External Affairs Celia Elliott and Technical Research Writer Kelly Searsmith, as well as OVCRI Research Development Manager Sowmya Anand and OVCRI Data, Information, and Budget Resource Analyst Amber Floyd were each instrumental in putting together a successful program proposal. In addition, Illinois Professor Anna Sokac in the Department of Cell and Developmental Biology provided important documents and plans for implementing faculty mentor training.
“In working to develop these diversity-enhancing programs, I have personally received a great deal of support from the Department of Physics and especially from its head, Professor Matthias Grosse Perdekamp.
“And of course, none of this would be possible without the level of trust we have built between Fisk University and UIUC, which provides a fundamental foundation for building an outstanding program. I should point out that Stephen Boppart has played a leadership role in developing this relationship. He has in fact led many initiatives to increase diversity on the UIUC campus, including as chief diversity officer and as a member of the Diversity Committee of the Carle Illinois College of Medicine. Likewise, our Fisk faculty collaborators have been instrumental in developing this strong rapport and the new training program.”
Song is putting out a call to colleagues to volunteer their time and expertise to the new bridge program, to make data science more accessible to underrepresented groups. Faculty will receive special training in mentoring students from diverse ethnic, racial, and gender groups.
“As scientists and leaders in our respective fields, it’s important that we ask ourselves what we can do to correct the longstanding inequality of access to computational sciences,” says Song. “Our new program will produce a talented, insightful, and diverse pool of graduate students. Our job will be to make sure their experiences not only train them well on the fundamentals and applications of big-data science, but also to ensure their experiences are positive and that they are prepared and willing to enter the field and make their own contributions to biomedical and computational biology.”