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Undergrads Get Taste of Mental Health Research

By Sophia P. Glezos

Shayron J. McLean, now a senior at Hunter College in New York, was a secretary and part-time student when she first learned of an NIMH program aimed at boosting minority representation in mental health research. She applied to COR (Career Opportunities in Research Education and Training), was accepted, and in her junior year, she launched into full-time study and forged a new career path.

Since 1980, NIMH has trained hundreds of undergraduates like McLean for research in mental health, behavioral science, and neuroscience through the COR program by awarding funds to colleges and universities that enroll substantial numbers of minorities. Grantees select third- and fourth-year students from among the pool of COR applicants and mentor them for the next 1 to 2 years. They teach research design, provide hands-on experience, and prepare them for graduate school and research careers.

Hunter College senior Shayron J. McLean gives her presentation at the recent COR colloquium, sponsored by NIMH.

Before McLean learned of COR, she was interested principally in clinical aspects of health science. But a course on the neurobiology of emotion sparked a keener curiosity about the origins and pathways of illness. She discovered that research could unlock doors to the understanding both of how a disorder may develop and ways to treat it. The opportunity COR presented was timely. McLean, now in her final semester, is applying to graduate school programs with a focus on the science and treatment of trauma and abuse.

"Students like these are evidence that COR is achieving its objectives," said NIMH director Dr. Steven Hyman. "Giving capable students opportunities for research experience early in their academic careers helps ensure they don't fall through the cracks. It's good to see the program is working."

Each year since the program's inception, NIMH has sponsored a colloquium to provide participants with their first taste of the world of science at a higher level. The meeting gives them a national forum to interact with peers and a platform to present research results.

Giving the keynote address at the most recent COR meeting, Hyman challenged the students to join what he called the "most privileged period" in scientific history.

NIMH director Dr. Steven Hyman (l) is awarded 1998 COR T-shirt and honorary plaque from COR committee chair Dr. John R. Jung of California State University.

"There hasn't been a more important time to be a scientist than now," he said. "We're just beginning to understand the brain's incredible complexity, now that we have more refined technology to better study and actually see the brain. But to make real progress, we need every one of your bright minds. We don't want anyone excluded from making contributions because of social or economic disadvantage."

The nearly 100 students at the colloquium presented their research in slide and poster sessions; attended plenary guest lectures by prominent scientists; heard from a panel of COR predecessors now in doctoral programs and postdoctoral fellowships; met with graduate school recruiters at a mid-morning fair; and toured NIMH laboratories in the Clinical Center.

For McLean, whose slide presentation was on the "Neurobiology of Chronic Social Stress in Male Rats," the peer contact offered by the program has made a big difference. "I've talked to people in other schools who are interested in research and they tend to feel very isolated. Being immersed in COR has helped my career come together in ways it never would have."

Unlike McLean, Charlotte R. Winston, a junior at Wayne State University, had a long-standing interest in research before she learned of COR, but didn't know how to gain experience. COR helped her achieve it. Now involved in the program, Winston said she has benefited most from the help of her mentor, Dr. Randall L. Commissaris, professor in the pharmaceutical sciences department. "There was so much out there I was unaware of before COR," Winston said. "When I first came into this lab, everything was a foreign language. But having a good mentor played a very big part. He took the time to explain."

On an NIMH lab tour are COR program participants (from l) Furqan Khaldun and Cotrane Payne of Hampton University, Amanda Reid of Spelman College, Alfred DeFreece of Hunter College, and Dr. Pamela Banks, COR coordinator at Jackson State University.

The COR mentors, said Sherman Ragland, NIMH deputy associate director for special populations, who administers the COR program, are the ones who directly help the participants realize their potential as scientists. "These students are very talented and smart. Their mentors treat them like peers, which creates an environment for successful graduate school preparation."

Simple but sage advice to students on how to get the most out of COR came from Dr. Patrick Cadet, a panel discussant among three other COR graduates. "Work hard and keep at it," he said. "Start building a foundation for yourself and don't wait for your advisors. It's rigorous. Be persistent. Don't get tempted to give up." Cadet is now a postdoctoral fellow at Vanderbilt University.

Some 18 colleges and universities nationwide participated in COR during 1997-1998, a record high for the program.

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