In summer 2020, when many research labs remained in COVID-19-related lockdown, I learned that the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) would be funding a new undergraduate research program, led by me and my colleagues Dr. Kathleen Gray at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) and Dr. Antonio Baines at North Carolina Central University (NCCU), a historically black college and university (HBCU). While this was fantastic news, we faced a few significant hurdles. How would we begin a new undergraduate research program—a cross-institutional collaboration, no less—when most labs were closed and most trainee-mentor interactions were virtual? Furthermore, how would we achieve our primary goal of providing supportive research experiences and career development for undergraduate students who are demographically underrepresented in STEM careers?
This new program, titled 21st Century Environmental Health Scholars (21EH Scholars), was designed as a 12-month, in-person program in which students would conduct cutting-edge research alongside leading scientists, developing research and science communication skills and cultivating a sense of belonging in science.
“A key focus of our program is supporting inclusive learning to create on-ramps into biomedical science,” said Dr. Gray.
The students and mentors would participate in training and dialogue focused on creating inclusive learning spaces, which meant we would need space for conversation and reflection in addition to the usual lab facilities.
Although it felt overwhelming, the pandemic and the social and racial unrest in 2020 underscored the need for this program and a cross-institutional partnership. The strength of the program, said Dr. Baines, is that “NCCU and UNC are working together to help provide this needed diversity of expertise and perspective.”
So, we got to work, and in early 2021 we welcomed our first cohort of 21EH Scholars, most of them limited to virtual experiences, to the UNC labs. However, by May 2021, thanks to the leadership and expertise of 21EH Scholars Program Manager Megan Hoert Hughes, we launched seven research experiences with students working largely in person and some housed on the UNC campus.
“We focus heavily on the mentor-mentee relationship because we have evidence in the literature that when students have strong mentor-mentee relationships, it is one of the factors that helps them persist in the sciences,” Hughes said.
Six positions were funded by the initial NIEHS award, and we were able to add an additional student thanks to funding from the SOT Faculty United for Toxicology Undergraduate Recruitment and Education (FUTURE) Committee. SOT supported NCCU student Sally-Irene Ngeve to conduct research in the lab of Dr. Robert Maile, a member of the Curriculum in Toxicology and Environmental Medicine (CiTEM) at UNC. Ngeve’s research focused on understanding how the immune system responds to burn and inhalation injuries and how such injuries can increase susceptibility to infectious disease.
Ngeve, along with the rest of the 2021 21EH Scholars cohort, also participated in professional development activities that included developing and presenting research posters, building science communication skills, drafting CVs and LinkedIn profiles, touring the state’s toxicology lab, and joining a journal club.
Fast forward to summer 2022 when we had six new 21EH Scholars supported by NIEHS working in labs. Even more exciting, we received funding for two additional students through the SOT FUTURE Committee! Andrew Barber, a biomedical sciences major at NCCU and 2022 SOT Undergraduate Diversity Program Travel awardee, was originally part of the 21EH inaugural cohort and worked in my lab examining markers of inflammation in epithelial cells exposed to emissions from burning plastics. Through the SOT FUTURE funding, we expanded his research experience to incorporate additional research techniques, such as organotypic tissue culture and exposure to air pollution samples collected in China.
“Being a part of the 21st Century Environmental Health Scholars program has been one of the defining experiences in my life. Not only has this program exposed me to true scientific research, but it also has allowed me to form connections and bonds that will be invaluable as I continue toward my future career,” Barber said.
Additionally, SOT funding gave Keith Rogers, a CiTEM graduate student in my lab and Graduate Student Representative on the SOT Committee on Diversity Initiatives, the opportunity to recruit Elisa WaMaina from his alma mater Oakwood University, a small HBCU in Huntsville, Alabama, for 21EH Scholars.
“I am eternally grateful for this opportunity as it opened my eyes to the world of grad school, research, and more,” WaMaina said.
Barber and WaMaina immediately became involved in daily lab activities, with focused and supportive mentoring from Rogers and CiTEM graduate student Stephanie Brocke. Barber and WaMaina contributed to projects exploring the toxicity of inhaled pollutants to respiratory host defense responses. In addition to hands-on lab skill development, they participated in various 21EH Scholars summer activities, such as journal club, poster and CV preparation, science communication skill building, and “Fun Friday” activities, which included touring the teaching and research laboratories on the campus of NCCU with Dr. Baines and social gatherings with other UNC summer research programs.
At the end of the summer, Barber and WaMaina presented their work at the UNC School of Medicine Undergraduate Research Symposium, receiving valuable feedback on their research. Both will present their posters at upcoming meetings, including a McNair Scholars conference, the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minoritized Scientists (ABRCMS), and the National Diversity in STEM Conference by the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics, and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS), for which WaMaina received a travel scholarship. They also plan to submit an abstract for the SOT Annual Meeting and ToxExpo in March 2023 in Nashville, Tennessee, so please introduce yourself when you see 21st Century Environmental Health Scholars Andrew Barber and Elisa WaMaina in Nashville!
21EH Scholars is led by multi-PIs: Dr. Ilona Jaspers, Professor in the Department of Pediatrics, Microbiology, and Immunology and Director of the Curriculum in Toxicology & Environmental Medicine at the UNC School or Medicine; Dr. Antonio Baines, Associate Professor in the Department of Biological and Biomedical Sciences at NCCU; and Dr. Kathleen Gray, Research Associate Professor in the UNC Institute for the Environment. The 21EH Scholars program is funded with support from a NIEHS R25 Program (Grant # 1R25ES031870).