UAMS’ Initiative to Maximize Student Development Expands Access to Biomedical Sciences

By Nathan Tidwell

Created in 2009 through a grant from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS), IMSD’s goal is to increase the number of doctoral graduates from underrepresented groups through a wide-ranging mentoring and training program.

IMSD students must be U.S. citizens or permanent residents and be accepted into the Biomedical Informatics, Interdisciplinary Biomedical Sciences or Pharmaceutical Sciences Ph.D. programs.

Students receive a $30,000 yearly stipend along with support for tuition and fees funded through IMSD for their first two years of graduate study. After two years, funding will be provided by the graduate program or faculty mentor.

Students selected for the IMSD program will participate in a six-week summer transition program consisting of lectures on various biomedical topics, career and developmental seminars, and a summer research rotation prior to the fall of their first year of coursework.

“There are currently 16 IMSD students,” said Latrina Prince, Ed.D., Graduate School associate dean for academic affairs and the IMSD program coordinator. “We accept four new students each year, although this year there are three because one is coming next year.”

The new IMSD students are:

  • Justin Pressley (Baylor University)
  • Mary Shepard (University of Texas at Arlington; University of Florida)
  • Todd Spears (University of Louisiana-Monroe; University of Alabama-Birmingham; Louisiana State University)

Prince, a Little Rock native, joined the Graduate School in 2018 as assistant dean for academic affairs and assistant professor. Prince was promoted to associate dean and associate professor in 2023.

“I got involved with the IMSD program when I joined the Graduate School in 2018,” Prince said.

IMSD has three specific aims:

  • Matriculate four new doctoral students each year;
  • Retain and graduate 90% percent of students in the IMSD program; and
  • Determine which program components contribute to student success and which areas need improvement, and disseminate the results.

Resilience seminars are a new part of IMSD, and something UAMS has embraced as a whole.

“Last year we were awarded additional funds to add more resilience and wellness workshops,” said Prince. “We feel this will further assist students with being successful in graduate school.”

In addition to a two-day resilience workshop, quarterly resilience workshops are hosted by program co-directors Robert E. McGehee Jr., Ph.D., and Billy Thomas, M.D.

An important factor in IMSD is the collaboration between UAMS departments and faculty. UAMS’ Educational and Student Success Center (ESSC) plays a large role.

Helen Hu

Educational and Student Success Center director Helen Hu, Ph.D., leads her team in assisting IMSD students.

“The academic programs at UAMS are both challenging and demanding. The requirements are rigorous, and the environment is competitive,” said ESSC director Helen Hu, Ph.D. “Students can find themselves falling behind in their courses because their old learning habits aren’t enough to achieve academic success in this new learning environment.”

The NIGMS grant is part of this additional assistance.

“Our program provides tutoring services for the students,” Prince said. “We know that the library has lots of resources available, which is why they’re included in the program.”

“Students often need to learn new strategies to improve their performance, and there are a number of services offered by ESSC to help them, which includes academic coaching, peer tutoring, writing assistance, and technical support, all of which are free of charge to UAMS students,” Hu added. “We try our best to help students be successful in their academic journey.”

UAMS faculty offering their time to teach seminars gives IMSD students insight from biomedical science academicians. Tiffany Miles, Ph.D., professor in the College of Medicine Department of Neurobiology and Developmental Sciences, is intimately familiar with the program.

“I am a former IMSD scholar,” said Miles. “The IMSD community was vital in sustaining and encouraging me to continue my research pursuits. As a presenter in the IMSD pre-matriculation course, I have this wonderful opportunity to engage with incoming students, share tips and inspire graduate students on their path in research.

David Ussery, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Biomedical Informatics, shared his experiences and knowledge.

“My lectures focused on one area of bioinformatics: genomics,” Ussery said. “Knowing about this area helps the students to prepare for the data overload they will get when they do experiments.”

“I shared with the students some of my struggles to get my Ph.D. — it took me 11 years — and tell them that they should expect their experiments to sometimes not work,” Ussery added. “Failure is expected and normal — the trick is to learn things from failure.”

IMSD has had a significant impact on enrollment of underrepresented students in the doctoral programs. In 2008, the average UAMS enrollment of those students in biomedical sciences doctoral programs was 6.1% – currently it is 15.9%.

Of the 37 students who began in the IMSD program, 12 have completed their Ph.D. degrees and 21 are still enrolled, resulting in a retention rate of 89%.

A long-term goal of the IMSD is to increase the number of researchers from underrepresented, disadvantaged and marginalized backgrounds with a Ph.D. in the biomedical sciences. Ultimately, providing a cadre of researchers whose research interests mirrors the health care issues that disproportionately affect minority and marginalized communities narrows the health disparities gaps.

“I think the IMSD program is a good idea,” Ussery said. “Dr. Prince has done a good job of running this.”