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Upstate program proves key for students pursuing research-focused doctoral programs

A program at Upstate Medical University is giving hopeful researchers and doctors a unique opportunity to spend a year strengthening their research skills in a real lab environment, preparing them for future research-focused doctoral degree programs.

The Postbaccalaureate Research and Education Program at Upstate (known as PREP-Up) allows accepted students to get paid to work in a lab for a year as apprentice scientists. The program aims to provide these experiences for students who may have not had the opportunity to gain lab experience during their undergraduate studies, or are from groups underrepresented in the biomedical field.

Co-directors Alaji Bah, PhD, Yingxi Lin, PhD, and Bruce Knutson, PhD, have developed and guided the program since founding it in 2021. This year the program has eight participants; four incoming students and four who are returning for a second year. Students attend research seminars, present and participate in a student journal club, present their work, and participate in discussions on research career development and how to apply to graduate school. Students are given ample opportunities to interact directly with many of our faculty and graduate students.

Knutson says this program is more needed than ever, citing the impact of COVID-19 on undergrad students. During the pandemic, many students lost out on in-person opportunities to gain their first experiences working in a laboratory setting.

“I’d been on medical track, with a goal to pursue medicine but didn’t get to do research in undergrad,” says PREP-Up student Lou Adebiyi. “Then COVID happened, and I wasn’t able to get into labs.”

This is Adebiyi’s second year with PREP-Up, and he’s using this year to prepare to apply for an MD/PhD program by working in the lab of Professor David Auerbach, PhD, in the department of Pharmacology. He’s researching the impact of a drug used for epileptic patients. “A lot of times this drug is very effective at treating seizures, but it gives them the risk of cardiac events and heart attacks, so we want to figure out why that is the case.”

Haleigh Pascual is another student who wasn’t able to get lab experience due to the pandemic, and is a current PREP-Up success story. After working with Knutson in the department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology studying a mutation in genes that causes Treacher Collins syndrome, she’s now headed to SUNY Upstate’s Biomedical PhD program  this fall.

Pascual says one of the biggest takeaways from her experience in the program is to never give up. “It can be frustrating when your experiment fails, but you just have to keep going.” She’s interested in continuing to study biochemistry, and also planning on doing a rotation in the pharmacology lab this fall.

Kairo Baylor discovered a desire to add research into her plans to become a physician during her undergraduate years. “I had to do a senior thesis, a 60+ page paper, conduct my own experiment, figure out the protocols and everything. From that process, I realized this is kind of fun, especially when what I was doing had a clinical relevance."

Baylor has spent the past year working in Knutson’s lab and has returned for a second year to continue her research on RNA polymerase I transcription while she applies to MD/PhD programs. She credits the PREP-Up with preparing her with research skills. One of the most important? Troubleshooting when your experiments go wrong. “I’m in that process right now of trying to figure out what’s wrong with my experiments. That’s something that everyone has to go through.”

All three agree that the program has provided them with invaluable experience. “For me, it was a real life-changer. I knew I wanted to pursue medicine, I didn’t doubt it, but there was a part that I felt like I was missing which was the critical thinking skills, the investigational aspect of it,” says Adebiyi. He says he’s excited by the idea of being able to identify a problem, and have the skills needed to find a solution. “I wanted to get that skill; to ask the question and investigate.”

Knutson says he hopes through additional funding, they can grow the program to be able to provide even more students with the opportunity to gain valuable research experience. He’s hoping an NIH grant will be able to fill some of the funding gaps currently carried by the research labs.

About the PREP-Up Program:

The program’s focus is to strengthen the research skills and academic competitiveness of program participants in an effort to help meet the critical need for diverse investigators in basic and translational research, particularly individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Students accepted into the program will work as apprentice scientists under the supervision of an established biomedical scientist and participate in courses for skill development. Each student will be provided a salary and benefits for the 12-month period as well as the opportunity of taking two full-credit courses free of charge.

Students will attend research seminars, present and participate in a student journal club, present their work, and participate in discussions on research career development and how to apply to graduate school. Students are given ample opportunities to interact directly with many of our faculty and graduate students.

Applicants should be undergraduate students from underrepresented groups in good academic standing and are majors in a biomedically related field, such as chemistry, biology, neuroscience, microbiology, etc.

Applicants must have a strong interest in pursuing a career in basic biomedical research, and are expected to pursue rigorous, research-focused doctoral degree programs (e.g., PhD or MD/PhD) in biomedical fields. Individuals who graduated within the last two years are also eligible.

The main criteria for the selection of students will be personal scholarship, academic excellence, and the match of applicant interests with those of participating SUNY Upstate Medical University biomedical faculty members.

If you’re interested in learning more about the PREP-Up program or applying for 2023, you can find more information here- https://www.upstate.edu/grad/programs/prep-up.php

Caption: From left, PREP-Up codirector Bruce Knutson, PhD, with PREP-Up students Hayleigh Pascual, Kairo Baylor and Lou Adebiyi.