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NIDA's Mentoring Program Reaches Out

The chemist and educator George Washington Carver once said, "Since new developments are the products of a creative mind, we must therefore stimulate and encourage that type of mind in every way possible."

The National Institute on Drug Abuse is stimulating and encouraging not only creative minds, but also scientific ones through its Minority Recruitment and Training Program. Under the leadership of the program's codirectors, Mary Affeldt and Dr. Jean Lud Cadet, the MRTP is working to increase participation of minority and underrepresented groups in research and training in the area of drug abuse.

Pooja Sharma, NIDA Minority Recruitment and Training Program participant, takes a picture of gel to compare DNA genotypes.

According to Cadet, clinical director of NIDA's intramural program, the MRTP not only provides a learning experience for minority scientists, but it also serves as a vehicle to expose prospective science students to a "real world" research environment.

The MRTP program recruits African Americans, Hispanics, Asian/Pacific Islanders, Native Americans and women. Students come from all over the country and range from high schoolers to undergraduate and graduate students, to medical students and science faculty. Their backgrounds can be in either basic or behavioral sciences.

Participants receive a paid summer research fellowship and spend 2 months working at the institute's intramural program in Baltimore. At the start of each summer session, students choose an area of focus and are paired with a NIDA investigator.

Malissa Liu, another MRTP student, isolates ribonucleic acid.

"The MRTP learning experience is supposed to help develop or guide the interests of new scientists and researchers," says Cadet, whose role includes spearheading recruitment efforts all over the country. This involves holding focus group meetings at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) to learn about the needs of minority researchers, as well as general recruitment efforts at HBCUs and job fairs in diverse communities. The institute has awarded 32 summer fellowships to faculty at minority colleges.

Cadet brings the influence of his own training to NIDA's mentoring program. As a 4th-year medical student at Columbia University, he spent 3 months studying brain disorders at the National Institute of Mental Health. Initially, his fellowship was to last for only 2 months. But Cadet recognized the value of his experience and was able to extend his fellowship.

Although he acknowledges that not all research experiences are positive, they are nonetheless "critical to the development of new scientists."

In the view of the MRTP, "the perspective of minority scientists and researchers is critical in an effort to advance our understanding of diverse health issues," notes Cadet.

Bryan Lewis spins precipitated DNA.

In the field of drug abuse research, minority and underrepresented study subjects can benefit greatly from a more diverse pool of investigators. The goal of cultural competence challenges the field to strive for increased diversity that more closely represents the cultural backgrounds of subjects.

At the beginning of their fellowship, students develop a contract that spells out their interests and expectations. With a NIDA investigator, participants work on experiments, collect data and analyze information.

Students have used such molecular techniques as differential display to identify genes regulated by drugs of abuse. Others have joined studies dealing with the behavioral effects of drugs in rodents, while still others have participated in studies of human subjects with a history of drug abuse.

Some students earn college credits. One completed work towards a masters degree at Howard University.

At the end of the program, participants evaluate their experience, a process critical to ensuring that future fellows benefit. The NIDA mentor also drafts a report card.

"Sometimes, knowledge is imparted easily from a seasoned researcher to a student, and sometimes not so easily," observes Cadet.

This summer, 22 students are in the program, bringing the total number to about 200. In its 8th year, MRTP continues to expand. Future goals include establishing an evaluation system to find out whether students end up pursuing research careers. Exposing students to science at an even younger age is another aim.

Concludes Cadet, "It is important that the program be expanded to use the perspectives and creativity of all our citizens, and NIH and NIDA are in a unique position to play a very positive role in this effort."

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