Developing Inquiry Skills

Spelman students are introduced to research through structured training early in the curriculum and through faculty-mentored research. Chemistry majors attend two year-long seminars, the First Year Experience and the Second Year Experience, which will now include developmental activities aimed at professional and research preparation. Students will learn about science careers and be introduced to research practices, including experimental design, reporting, and ethics through the use of modules and the process of research deconstruction. Research was supported through the Spelman Mentored and Research Trained (SMART) Scholars Program, with students participating in a focused multi-year development program; and the Research Associates Program (RAP), with trainees working on research projects at Spelman or local institutions.

The educational benefits of undergraduate research are essential to the development of students and predict the persistence of underrepresented minorities in STEM majors. The HHMI Program has built upon its earlier successes in preparing student researchers by introducing all STEM students to research, but now at an earlier level through more structured training within the broader curriculum and by supporting faculty-mentored research opportunities. Students were selected as HHMI Program participants in one of two programs: the SMART Scholars Program, with participants being selected as first-year students and participating in a focused continuous development program; and the RAP program, with trainees selected each year to work with faculty mentors on active research projects either at Spelman or at local area institutions.

It is recognized that there is a great benefit to creating a research culture by bringing high-achieving first-year students to campus with a strong interest in science and immersing them in structured learning communities and research programs. During years two to four of the current grant, seven incoming first-year students were selected as SMART Scholars (total of twenty-one students by year 4.) By combining a competitive research stipend and guaranteed research training support, the SMART Scholar Program attracted highly motivated students with strong academic credentials. SMART Scholars were selected based on their overall high school GPA, class standing, SAT/ACT scores, letters of support, and interest in and potential for research in science as indicated in an essay.

Recognizing the importance of building a community of scholars early in the academic life of the student, SMART Scholars participate in a number of development activities both in their required classes and outside of class that will support them over their time at the college.

The program co-directors and program coordinator met with SMART Scholars twice a month, to monitor and discuss student research and academic progress. Course instructors will be contacted regularly to report on the progress of the scholars enrolled in their classes. If any student is found to be struggling academically, her departmental adviser will be notified, and the student will be required to seek assistance from the Learning Resources Center or other support on campus. SMART Scholars will be required to maintain a minimum 3.0 GPA while in the program. Any scholar failing to meet the GPA requirement will be placed on probationary status and required to attend academic support sessions as necessary. Scholars are required to raise their GPA by the end of the following semester or face being removed from the program.

All first-year Spelman students are required to attend the First Year Experience (FYE) and the Sophomore Year Experience (SYE), year-long seminars as part of the Spelman MILE. Since students interested in a STEM major typically begin taking required courses in their major during their first year, they are assigned to FYE sections taught by their major department faculty. As STEM majors are encouraged to perform research, it is important that they are well-prepared for research positions and internships. This is initiated through the following development activities in the FYE seminar: (1) introduction to the major; (2) resume and personal statement writing; (3) time management skills; (4) career development; and (5) introduction to research ethics. Some of these topics are currently introduced through the FYE course while others (topics 4 & 5) reside within program seminars, such as MBRS-RISE and Health Careers Programs. The HHMI Program co-directors have worked with STEM faculty to develop and consolidate these modules to provide consistency among the FYE sections.

As STEM sophomores move into the SYE seminars in their departments, they are introduced to topics that build on the FYE objectives. Fall STEM SYE sections incorporate modules on: (1) experimental design; (2) notebook preparation; (3) literature searching; (4) report writing; and (5) research expectations. The HHMI Program supported efforts to develop these modules as part of the SYE curriculum. Each Spelman student is currently required to build an electronic portfolio containing various writing assignments through e-Portfolio II (SpEl.Folio) starting in the FYE seminar and carried through the SYE seminar. These portfolios are used to monitor chemistry student progress through the seminars by assessing written assignments related to the modules. In addition, each SMART Scholar is required to develop and maintain a professional portfolio that includes her resume, personal statement, career goals, lab report writing samples, and a video interview. Scholars are encouraged to update and share their professional portfolios each semester with assessment staff (IES), the program co-directors, and their academic advisers for review and assessment.

SMART Scholars should select their research mentors and projects by spring term of the first year. They will have access to information on a "Research Programs" web page describing projects with Spelman faculty mentors and approved projects at institutions in the Atlanta area. Scholars will participate in an Annual Research Open House in the spring where they can rotate through laboratories and meet with faculty research mentors and the students in their current research groups. Scholars are required to meet with at least two faculty researchers to discuss their work in more detail and make a final selection by September 1 of their sophomore year.

Each sophomore SMART Scholar will meet with her faculty mentor in late August/early September (Year 3 of the grant) to develop a research contract that outlines the responsibilities and expectations of both researcher and mentor, including identifying potential conferences for presenting work. The program coordinator will request that research mentors and mentees submit periodic reports on the progress of their research. Each scholar will be encouraged to stay with the same research project at least through her junior year, if agreeable to both the scholar and her mentor. This extended research time allows the scholar to make more progress and advance the faculty mentor's work. Other requirements include: (1) attending periodic research seminars; (2) presenting at a national conference(s); (3) presenting at Spelman's Annual Research Day; and (4) writing a paper for publication and/or submitting a thesis. The goal of the SMART Scholar experience is to help students build the skill set necessary to think and perform like scientists.

Engagement in the Spelman College Annual Research Day offers SMART and RAP scholars the opportunity to gain skills and knowledge regarding conference presentations and the stage upon which to showcase their research findings in an oral or poster format to the campus community and visitors. Of the remarkable number of scholars that participated in Research Day from AY' 2013–2014 to AY' 2014–2015, the table below highlights research productivity for fourteen research scholars who placed in a STEM category.

Table 1. HHMI Participants' Research Day Accomplishments

Source: Spelman College Research Day Program Book

Annual Research Day Presentation Scholars' Research Title

and Award Placement

Oral or Poster Presentation Format

The Effects of Benzimidazole-based Sulponamide on SKOV3 Ovarian Cancer Cell Metastasis

2nd Place Poster Winner

Biology Poster

The Consequences of responding Counter stereotypically to In-group Members' Stereotype-Confirming Behaviors

Psychology Poster

Are Gut Microbiota the Food Entrainable Oscillator?

Biology Poster

The Apoptotic Effect of Benzimidazole–Based Sulphonamide (Drug X) on Multidrug Resistant SKOV3 Cells

2nd Place Poster Winner

Biology Poster

Diohenyl ditelluride Induced Neurotoxicity

1st Place Poster Winner

Environmental Science/Chemistry Poster

Chemical Separation and Analysis of Bioactive Licorice Root Forms as Therapy for Prostate Cancer

1st Place Poster Winner

Chemistry Poster

The Fiber Alignment of Tubular Hydrogels

Engineering Poster

The Pretreatment and Preparation of Composite, Smart Fibers from Perennial Grasses for Use in the Production of Biofuels 1st Place Winner

Chemistry Poster

Simultaneous Activation of C-X-C Chemokine Receptor 4 and Cannabinoid Receptor 2 Results in Decreased Cell Signaling and Tumor Cell Intravasation 2nd Place Winner

Biology Poster

Food Chemistry and Toxicology: Safety of Locally-Sold Foods

Environmental Poster

MTOTO 2nd Place Winner

Computer Science Oral

The Role of Notch-IRX3 Transcription Signaling During Endothelial Cell Migration

Biology Poster

The effect of Benzyl Isothiocyanate on the Chemo-sensitivity of Human Umbilical Vein Endothelial Cells

Biology Poster

Function of TIP150 in EGF-elicited Directional Cell Migration of Metastatic Breast Cancer 2nd Place Winner

Biology Poster

In addition to the SMART Scholars, seven additional STEM students per year are supported through the Research Associates Program (RAP). This initiative has been expanded from the previously funded HHMI RAP program to include rising sophomores, juniors, and seniors. RAP trainees are selected by the Internal Advisory Board based on similar criteria used to select SMART Scholars. RAP trainees meet the same research requirements as the SMART Scholars in terms of building trainee-mentor contracts, undergoing periodic performance review, attendance of research seminars, and present at Spelman's Annual Research Day. They also meet with the program coordinator and co-directors once per month.

Based on earlier success with Spelman student teams competing for the Microsoft Imagine Cup, the HHMI Program has worked closely with Institutional Advancement in Years 1–3 to identify donors or a corporate partner(s) to support a yearly research competition entitled SPARC beginning in fall semester of Year 2. Interdisciplinary student teams of three to five members are invited to develop a solution to a general scientific or biomedical problem(s) posed by the corporate partner or a problem that is put forward by the internal advisory board. Teams are assigned a faculty leader who will serve as a liaison to the sponsoring corporation and monitor team progress over the course of the competition. Student research teams may request supply funds to help complete their research. Teams are required to meet regularly with their faculty leaders and submit progress reports in the fall and spring. The first set of competing teams were required to present their solutions at Spelman's Annual Research Day in April of 2014, with their work being evaluated by corporate representatives. The winning team was announced at the Research Day closing ceremony with a $10,000 prize donated by a donor to the college, to be distributed among the team members. As a result of this competition, it is hoped that one or more student participants may yield an internship with the corporate sponsor(s).

During these final two years of grant funding, SMART Scholars, RAP Trainees, and other motivated STEM majors have been encouraged to develop and submit original research grants for funding through a competitive process. This is a novel approach to highlighting students who show the initiative to advance their innovative ideas. A general pool of funds is available to support selected projects. All interested students were required to: (1) attend a grant writing workshop offered by the HHMI Program; (2) submit a "letter of intent" briefly outlining their research; (3) submit a letter of support from a faculty research mentor willing to work with the student; and (4) submit a proposal following published guidelines. Funding can cover either an academic year or ten weeks during the summer. One student PI or two co-PIs can submit a grant with a maximum budget of $8,000 (with a minimum of two proposals being awarded each year.) A faculty research mentor can serve as a "consultant" on the proposed project, but the research must be student-generated and not merely a reiteration of a current faculty project. Students can request funds for stipends, consultant fees, research supplies, travel, and publication costs. Grants will be reviewed by the Internal Advisory Board. Grantees will be required to submit periodic progress reports, present their research findings at Spelman's Annual Research Day and at least one national scientific conference, prepare a manuscript by the end of the funding period, and apply to at least three graduate programs. One outcome of this initiative is that students will be encouraged to work collaboratively with faculty mentors to coauthor manuscripts for publication and assist in preparing applications for supplemental grants.