NIH R25 award funds Meharry, Fisk and VUMC partnership to engage diverse students in research

data science academics and research

Meharry Medical College, Fisk University and Vanderbilt University Medical Center (VUMC) have received an NIH R25 award to engage diverse undergraduate and graduate students in meaningful biomedical informatics and biomedical data science summer research experiences.

The five-year, $679,000 award will be shared by Meharry, Fisk and VUMC and will fund the creation of the Biomedical Informatics Ecosystem to Support Talented Diverse Students in Data Science (BEST-DS2). BEST-DS2 will engage Fisk and Meharry students in a summer research program led by faculty from The School of Natural Sciences and Mathematics at Fisk, Meharry’s School of Applied Computational Sciences and the Department of Biomedical Informatics at VUMC.

Over the course of five years, 30 students will gain knowledge, expertise and skills in the emerging fields of bioinformatics and biomedical data science that are critical to advancing health care.

Fortune Mhlanga

“It is wonderful to join Fisk and VUMC to pursue our shared goal of increasing diversity in biomedical data science and bioinformatics,” says Fortune Mhlanga, Ph.D., dean, Meharry School of Applied Computational Sciences. “BEST-DS2 will play an important role in preparing diverse students for future educational and career opportunities.”

Fisk and Meharry are Historically Black Colleges and Universities with a high proportion of students from groups who are underrepresented in biomedical informatics and biomedical data science. VUMC provides substantial expertise in successful summer research experiences through the Vanderbilt Biomedical Informatics Summer Program. Each institution is in Nashville, Tenn. and enjoy a history of successful collaborations.

This program also builds upon the Meharry-Vanderbilt Alliance which began in 1999 with a mission to enrich learning and advance clinical research by developing and supporting a mutually beneficial partnership with each other and the communities they serve.

Kim Unertl

“The grant will allow us to further develop the relationship between Fisk, Meharry, and VUMC in Biomedical Informatics, while supporting biomedical informatics and biomedical data science research experiences for talented Fisk undergraduate and Meharry graduate students,” says Kim Unertl, Ph.D., associate professor and director of graduate studies in the Department of Biomedical Informatics at VUMC.

Beginning in the summer of 2023, BEST-DS2 will engage three undergraduate students from Fisk and three master’s students from Meharry in a 12-week summer research program. Students will start by learning research techniques from faculty at all three institutions during a two-week bootcamp at the Meharry-Vanderbilt Alliance office on Meharry’s campus. They will then split into three groups of two and spend 10 weeks conducting research at Meharry, Fisk and VUMC.

The BEST-DS2 team will also be doing virtual presentations about informatics to students at other HBCUs and initiating a two-week skills bootcamp each summer (led by Zhijun Yin, PhD, assistant professor of biomedical informatics at VUMC, as well as faculty from Fisk and Meharry). All students will receive a stipend as well as paid housing during the program, ensuring equitable compensation for undergraduate students and a higher stipend level for Meharry graduate students.

Lei Qian

“Fisk, Meharry and VUMC have a long history of collaboration. This project will reinforce this coalition by training underrepresented students from Fisk and Meharry in bioinformatics and data sciences and ultimately increasing the diversity of researchers in these areas. I am looking forward to working with my colleagues at Meharry and VUMC to achieve these goals,” says Lei Qian, Ph.D., associate professor and discipline coordinator of computer science at Fisk. 

The program includes primary investigators (PI) from each institution. Dr. Mhlanga, is the contact PI for the grant and the PI for Meharry. Todd Gary, Ph.D., assistant professor, biomedical data science, and director, external research development partnerships, is co-investigator for Meharry. Dr. Qian is the PI for Fisk and Dr. Unertl is the PI for VUMC.

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