Prepped and ready to go

By Mark Derewicz, Images by Max Englund

In high school, like most teenagers, Keon Wimberly had no idea what biomedical research was. “I thought it was the stuff medical doctors did,” he said. “The only medical fields I knew of were teaching medicine and practicing medicine.” While attending Xavier University in Louisiana, Wimberly applied to medical school because that’s the route he assumed led to biomedical research.

Then, while scheduling interviews around the country, he got the feeling he was missing out on something. He googled “post baccalaureate research” and one of the first hits was UNC’s Postbaccalaureate Research Education Program, also known as UNC PREP. He read, he learned, he applied to the program, he interviewed, and he got accepted.

A year later, Wimberly was co-authoring a chapter on gene therapy for a scientific textbook. Now he’s on the verge of attending graduate school. And he has UNC’s PREP program to thank.

“I learned everything I needed and more,” Wimberly said. “I actually feel like I’m going to be ahead of my grad school peers who come straight from their undergraduate work.”

UNC’s PREP program, one of 30 NIH PREP programs around the country, provides graduate-level training in biomedical sciences and grad-school preparation to underserved minority students. According to Josh Hall, PhD, director of the UNC PREP, the program’s overarching goal is to encourage diversity in the scientific workforce at the highest level – academic faculty and industry researchers.

This spring the NIH awarded UNC School of Medicine another four-year, $1.6 million grant for UNC PREP.

“Students spend a year at UNC doing research in a lab, taking a graduate-level course, and building skills to help them be successful in graduate programs in biomedical sciences,” said Hall, who added that part of PREP training is dedicated to rounding out the rougher edges of each student’s profile. “Our program is hyper focused to address every aspect of the students’ applications to enable them to have the most competitive application package possible.”

A success story

To say that UNC PREP has been a success is an understatement. In its first four years, 89 percent of UNC PREP students were accepted into doctoral programs at top research institutions, such as Stanford, Duke, Michigan, Wisconsin, UNC, Emory, Washington University in St. Louis, and the University of Washington. An additional student decided to pursue a master’s degree.

The great thing about PREP was the boot camp that included GRE-preparation, how to do common lab assays, how to think critically, and answer questions about a scientific paper. I really got my feet wet. I was actually happy I didn’t go to graduate school right away because I probably wouldn’t have been very good at it. – Nicole Fleming

What’s more, 62 percent of UNC PREP students had not been accepted into graduate schools following their undergraduate work. But after PREP, 93 percent of those students – all but one – got into graduate school in biomedical sciences and are now pursing doctorate degrees.

“The advantage of PREP is that sometimes undergraduates have a lot going on, they don’t have the time to put a lot of thought into what’s the right graduate program for them, where to apply, or even how to create the best application,” Hall said. “PREP allows them to focus on their interests, grow as researchers, take a grad-level course, and then make an informed decision about their future.”

Chrystal Starbird, a third-year graduate student at Vanderbilt who got her start at UNC PREP, had been a strong undergraduate biology major at UNC but her grades reflected a life busy as a mom taking care of two young kids. After graduating in 2008, she worked as an associate biochemist at Pfizer. Two years later, Starbird received a call from Patricia Phelps, PhD, the first director of UNC PREP. Phelps told Starbird about the new program.

“We both thought that PREP would help me prove that I was a good student,” Starbird said. “It was an unbelievable, absolutely amazing program. I was mentored by great scientists. I took a great cell biology course. I went to my first conference.”

Starbird proved herself enough to get into Duke, Vanderbilt, and UNC. At Vanderbilt, she earned a National Science Foundation fellowship and published her first paper in Nature Chemical Biology; she’s now well on her way to writing her dissertation.

“I owe all the things I’ve accomplished to PREP,” Starbird said. “I tell that to Josh all the time.”

Keon Wimberly could say the same thing. He chose UNC’s PREP program for two reasons: it was in the South and it had great placement rates. “UNC just beat a lot of other PREP programs, in my opinion,” he said.

It’s true not all NIH PREP programs are created equal. For instance, some universities restrict students from joining certain labs. “UNC encouraged me to look around at different labs,” Wimberly said. “I requested to interview with Steven Gray [PhD] because gene therapy seemed perfect for me; I wanted to do something related to genetics and drug delivery. Turned out he had mentored a PREP student in the past.”

Gray said, “In some ways, PREP students need to balance more things in their lives than do first-year graduate students. PREP students have to prepare for the GRE, take a class, schedule and go to a conference, do their lab work. When I write letters of recommendation, I can say that the PREP student has already balanced all of these things expected of them in grad school. It’s not about whether I think they can handle it; I’ve already seen them handle it.”

Gray, who is creating potential gene therapies for several diseases, had been a postdoctoral fellow under Jude Samulski, PhD, the director of the UNC Gene Therapy Center. Samulski, a star in the field gene therapy, had devised his first therapeutic delivery system while a grad student at the University of Florida. Fate, it seems, isn’t without a sense of symmetry. Wimberly decided to continue his study of genetics and drug delivery at Samulski’s alma mater after turning down Emory, Vanderbilt, USC, UCLA, the University of Colorado, and Alabama-Birmingham.

“PREP gave me a chance to grow as a scientist,” Wimberly said. “And it made me competitive. I went on nine interviews for graduate school thanks to PREP. All of us, I think, had our choices. The world was open to us.”

Though he was accepted into graduate school, Wimberly didn’t consider his mission accomplished.

“Keon’s research projects got off to a slow start due to his other PREP obligations,” Gray said. “But he’s got some good data now and he’s bound and determined to see them through. So he’s burning the midnight oil and pretty much living in the lab. He’s not coasting. He’s really determined. I think all the PREP students are really motivated.”

Under the umbrella

A unique feature of UNC PREP is its close ties to the Biological and Biomedical Sciences Program, or BBSP, which allows UNC School of Medicine graduate students to rotate between three labs over the course of one year to see which fits them best.

“One of PREP’s main recruiting methods is to reach out to those underrepresented students who applied to BBSP but didn’t get in,” Hall said. “I contact them about PREP – not just our PREP program but all 15 around the country – because UNC’s program has gotten fairly competitive. It’s not a forgone conclusion we’ll accept the students who didn’t get into BBSP.” Hall and UNC colleagues also recruit students at conferences and universities across the nation.

During UNC PREP’s first year, there were 35 applicants. Seven were fully funded through the NIH grant. Now Hall wades through about 115 applications for eight slots – the NIH added funding for an eighth student due to UNC’s success during the grant’s first four years.

“The reality is that each class size has been greater than seven because we work with faculty who use their own research funds to support a PREP student,” Hall said. “What’s great, now that PREP is established, is that researchers are calling me to request a student they want to fund.”

Desinia Johnson, from Raleigh, grew interested in research as an undergraduate at NC Central but was unsure she wanted to commit to graduate school, so she didn’t apply. One of her professors recommended she speak to Phelps, who told her about the PREP program.

“I became more confident in myself during that year,” she said. “I learned skills that would help me be successful, and I learned about many opportunities – academia, industry, consulting, government work.

Johnson is now a third-year PhD student in UNC’s toxicology program, studying how ozone contributes to diabetes. Most of her time is spent off campus working with researchers affiliated with the Environmental Protection Agency.

One of her fellow PREP alumni, Nicole Fleming, had been very sure as an undergraduate that graduate school was for her, but she was only accepted into two “safety” schools after graduating from the University of the Virgin Islands. When UNC rejected her application, she asked BBSP administrators to push her application over to Hall’s office. Fleming was accepted into PREP, where she quickly learned how ill-prepared she had been for graduate school.

“The great thing about PREP was the boot camp that included GRE-preparation, how to do common lab assays, how to think critically, and answer questions about a scientific paper,” Fleming said. “I really got my feet wet. I was actually happy I didn’t go to graduate school right away because I probably wouldn’t have been very good at it.”

A few months into her PREP year, Fleming reapplied to a bunch of schools, and is now completing her first year at UNC.

About a third of UNC PREP students wind up attending UNC School of Medicine for graduate school.

“The goal of PREP is to help students identify the best program for them,” Hall said. “They’re not guaranteed to get into UNC. If they do, they’ve earned it.”

For more information on UNC PREP, check the website.