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$1M NIH Grant Assists Minority Students In Biomedical Field

Published: May 1, 2012

Psychology’s Dustin Thoman received a four-year RO1 grant of just under $1 million from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) last summer to support his search for ways to promote the persistence of underrepresented minority students in their pursuit of biomedical careers and graduate study.

The Research Project Grant (R01) is the original and historically oldest grant mechanism used by the NIH and provides support for health-related research and development based on it’s mission.

Working with his colleague Jessi Smith of Montana State University, Thoman’s project has as its theme “Culturally Connected Communal Goals: Latino and Native Americans in Biomedicine.”

“Understanding ways to enhance the diversity of the biomedical workforce is paramount to the success and health of the nation and the world,” said Thoman, a member of the university since 2008.

The project has two aims, he explained. The first is to determine whether Latino and Native American students from cultures that highly value communal goals will develop greater interest in biomedical research careers if they feel that their work in science benefits their communities. The second goal is to see if increasing students’ perceptions of being able to fulfill their communal goals through research can enhance their interest in scientific careers.

Thoman and Smith will use CSULB and Montana State student volunteers to collect quantitative longitudinal data from 720 undergraduate research assistants. Thoman believes one big reason for the success of the project’s funding request was its inclusion of a longitudinal component.

“A lot of researchers don’t include that,” he said. “I’ve been trained in longitudinal data analysis which makes this project a good fit. We will follow participants for two years. This is the tricky part. Even if the students leave the university, we will continue to follow them. Where will their interests and motivations go?”

The project’s ultimate goal will be to predict changes in the interest and persistence in biomedical careers over time by the Latino and Native American research assistants.

“We draw a parallel between the communal orientation that attracts women to certain careers and the communal orientation of Native and Latino Americans,” he explained. “We challenge the assumption that academic preparedness, financial support and access to undergraduate research opportunities are sufficient for promoting biomedical career interest. Instead, we propose that by increasing feelings of congruency between what they are doing as research assistants (their duties in the lab) and why they are doing it (e.g., the purpose of the research), research assistants will experience greater feelings of academic belongingness and interest in pursuing biomedical research careers.”

Knowledge gained from this project will offer theoretical advancements to existing programs designed to promote the career interest of underrepresented minorities and will produce a simple, low-cost, guided exercise promoting scientific careers to be disseminated within existing training programs.

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The guided exercise will represent an experiment in intervention, Thoman said. “Can we ask students to make connections to what they do on a day-to-day level? Can intervention promote motivation? We will design and implement a simple 20-minute writing exercise that we hope will have an affect two years out. There is plenty of research to prove that a small social psychological intervention can make a big difference to students later. Small interventions can make big differences. They can raise GPAs three years down the road. We’re hoping we can design something like that. That would be ideal. It blends the goals to indirectly benefit people through research with the wish to directly serve students by creating and improving programs.

“We want to know to what extent undergraduates already working in research labs are influenced by cultural preconceptions about careers in science,” Thoman added. “What are the social and cultural factors that can propel us in different career directions? Why become a psychologist instead of a physicist? What culturally-connected factors do we identify among Native American and Latino students that affect career choices differently from White students, for example? What predictors will help them get interested in science careers from the start and what will help them hang on once they get experience?”

Thoman designed the project’s survey to get off to a fast start. “We wanted capture at the very beginning the attitudes of these minority students,” he said. “Would they pursue a career more for personal gratification or because they want to help their communities? There may be multiple versions of communal orientations. Maybe they just want to work with people. To what extent will science allow these students to pursue their career purpose goals?”

Thoman believes the surveys will reveal changes in goals over time. “Do goals become more communal? Do students begin their education thinking of themselves then grow into thinking about the group?” he asked. “Or do they become more acculturated to what I call ‘the masculine or individualistic view of science’ or interest in the kinds of science that aren’t really meant to help people? We are interested in how that changes over time.”

Thoman won the Scholarly and Creative Activity Award in 2009. The Tennessee native earned his B.S. in psychology from Middle Tennessee State University in 2002 before collecting his master’s and Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Utah.

Thoman also hopes to study the simple experience of interest. “How can talking to other people promote our interests?” he asked. “Interest can feel like a very individual thing, but it’s actually influenced, mostly outside of our awareness, by our interactions with other people. When I ask people why they do certain things, they often reply that what they do represents a sense of self. ‘It’s me,’ they say. But in conversations, the subtle (often non-verbal) behavior of listeners and conversation partners can help us maintain or can change our interest in a subject.”

Thoman hopes to take with at the project’s conclusion the knowledge he helped his students taken on similar projects.

“I want to produce research than can be plugged into the right programs immediately,” he said.

–Richard Manly