This year, Yale will be welcoming its first five participants in a new, National Institutes of Health-funded diversity program.
Following the acquisition of a four-year grant worth $1.3 million, Yale has become one of 31 universities to implement PREP, the Post-Baccalaureate Research Education Program. The PREP program welcomes a select group of outstanding minority college graduates who hail from colleges with limited access to resources for biomedical research. By providing access to research positions in labs and faculty mentorship, as well as two science courses at Yale, the program aims to better prepare students to apply for doctoral at high-ranking institutions. But the enrollment of the first five Yale PREP students has sparked a discussion about the larger state of minority representation at Yale’s graduate schools.
“In the past five years or so, the average intake of underrepresented students in the Biological and Biomedical Sciences Program at Yale has been around six students,” PREP Co-Director Carl Hashimoto GRD ’86 wrote in a Tuesday email, noting that this is an unacceptably low number.
Rodney Cohen, director of the Afro-American Cultural Center, explained that the major barriers preventing minorities from pursuing science were a lack of mentoring and not seeing minority role models in research positions.
Hashimoto specified that it has been difficult to build a legacy of strong minority BBS graduates to act as role models and mentors at Yale because of the difficulties those at poorly funded institutions have with acquiring research experience.
“For many years, the BBS faculty has wanted to increase the diversity of students in our Ph.D. programs, and therefore has been frustrated to turn down applicants who fell short of being competitive because they lack research experience,” Hashimoto said. “Our program addresses that problem.”
According to Hashimoto, good mentorship is the centerpiece of PREP. He added that participants are very fortunate because so many faculty members are excited to welcome them into their labs and increase diversity.
While both faculty members expressed concern about the number of minority students pursuing biomedical Ph.D.s at Yale, undergraduate students at Yale College who participated in STARS, a similar science research program at Yale that is aimed at undergraduates, were less concerned. One Hispanic sophomore, who preferred to remain anonymous because she did not want her opinions to be held against her, noted, “there are only three Anglo-Americans in my lab.”
Another undergraduate student, of Native American descent, who wanted to remain anonymous for the same reason, said that in her specific lab, there were Asian, Black, female and gay researchers, noting that “there is a huge spectrum.”
But both students, who work in neuroscience labs, acknowledged that their case may not extend to all departments, and expressed support for the initiative.
“I wouldn’t have been as established in the kind of lab I am in now, had it not been for the STARS program,” the latter sophomore said. “I can only imagine how large the benefits would be for college graduates.”
Cohen said he could not envisage any drawbacks to PREP, but medical students from the Yale International Medical Student Group — a group of School of Medicine international students — voiced dissatisfaction about the program’s exclusion of international students.
The Yale PREP website defines diversity as being from “from traditionally underrepresented groups in the biomedical sciences,” but specified that non-U.S. citizens and permanent residents were ineligible for the program.
In an email to the News, Sarah Xu MED ’16 wrote that, as an international student, she was “deeply saddened” to hear that PREP does not include international students.
“My vision of Yale had always [been] of its inclusiveness for international students, and hearing that they would be left out of this opportunity is disappointing,” she wrote.
Hashimoto said that the prerequisite of prior research experience was a limitation of the program, but explained that both the holistic application process and the timing of the program was intentionally crafted to solve this problem.
“To get around this problem [of a prerequisite] as much as possible, we start the program in June, so that by December, when many of the best programs have their application deadlines, PREP participants will have worked in a lab for up to six months … enough time for faculty mentors to be able to comment on their PREP participant’s research abilities and potential,” Hashimoto said.
Hashimoto said that the program is small — which is probably due to federal funding constraints of the NIH — but that if even a couple of PREP participants matriculate at Yale, that will substantially increase the percentage of underrepresented groups in the BBS program.
Over the next three years, the number of PREP students admitted will increase from five to seven.
Correction: Dec. 9
A previous version of this story misstated the views of a fourth-year medical student. This information has been removed.