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Augustana receives funds for research by underrepresented groups

November  22, 2016

A consortium of schools in the Midwest, including Augustana College, is once again the benefactors of a grant from the National Science Foundation. Collectively, the amount awarded is $5 million, which will be distributed amongst the schools. Augustana will be receiving $144,000 over the next five years to support research by underrepresented minority students in the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields.

The Iowa-Illinois-Nebraska LSAMP (IINSPIRELSAMP) alliance was formed in 2011 to broaden the participation of underrepresented minorities in STEM education in the Midwest. Sixteen two-year and four four-year colleges are represented, and will benefit from the renewal of the grant. For Augustana, the IINSPIRE-LSAMP consortium grant will award $28,000 per year to support eligible students' research-related activities during the next five years.

According to the press release, the alliance "focuses on extending and sustaining innovative student experiences on every campus to recruit and retain students in STEM. In these student experiences, IINSPIRE students become leaders through undergraduate research projects and internships, professional meetings, and student organizations. They gain confidence as scientists, engineers, and mathematicians through training, mentoring, support and transition programs."

Dr. Jeffrey Ratliff-Crain, associate dean, curriculum and enrichment, has been overseeing and implementing the grant on campus, where he sees the funding in alignment with the educational values and mission of Augustana College.  

"We are committed to giving students hands-on learning opportunities to prep them for life after college. We continue our work to have a more diverse student body, and this grant opportunity provides value and affordability, which supports our strategic plan," noted Dr. Ratliff-Crain.  

The funding can be used for summer research stipends, materials, travel to conferences, stipends for faculty supervising summer research, and access to IINSPIRE resources and events, such as conferences and learning opportunities for eligible students. Dr. Ratliff-Crain seeks to provide valuable student research opportunities, as he did with student Christian Garcia, who attended STEM-funded research at Texas Medical Center last year and summed up what the learning experience meant for him:

"Conducting research has had a tremendous impact in my ability to understand the significance and complexity of research, as well as providing me the opportunity to experience the role of a scientist. This experience prepared me to succeed in my summer neuroscience research at Baylor College of Medicine because I had the fundamentals and background to conduct research. In addition, it has allowed me to transfer knowledge from the classroom to the lab in a hands-on manner. As a kinesthetic learner, research funded by LSAMP has allowed me to bridge the gap between lecture and lab. Overall, I have had a positive experience conducting research, regardless of the many failed experiments, and it has provided me with the confidence as a scientist."

Dr. Lori Scott, professor in biology medical professions, was the Augustana campus coordinator for the first grant. She was able to collaborate with students for research, and gain valuable insights into the effectiveness. Her specialization in molecular biology, genetics, and bioinformatics allowed her to see firsthand how the funding affected students in her study. "My focus with the LSAMP grant has been to get students involved in research. My research project, called the Meiothermus ruber genome analysis project, found its focus and the project made significant advances as a result of LSAMP-funded student contributions. It is important to note that all the advances made on my project were achieved by students; I just organize and supervise." 

"The most exciting part of my participation in this grant, however, has been watching students grow in confidence and maturity as researchers. I strongly emphasize developing independence at the research bench. I'm confident that the members of my research team have the skills needed for most entry-level molecular biology lab jobs or graduate school. Their confidence means they won't be intimated to expand their skills in these new environments. Because my research program has its focus, I'm now able to offer even more authentic research experiences. My next endeavor is to get the work published."  

The consortium of schools learned of the latest award in October 2016, just weeks before funding expired on October 31, 2016. Dr. Ratliff-Crain said the submission for renewal, and the larger amount requested and rewarded, was "very impressive" for the consortium of schools, where Iowa State University serves as the lead institution. Awards to Augustana students will increase from $10,000 to $28,000 per year.  

For Dr. Ratliff-Crain, the number of students impacted during the last five years is a testament to the success of the STEM initiative. "Over the duration of the grant, we doubled enrollment of underrepresented students in the STEM majors and increased graduation over 1.5X. Fourteen students were provided funding during the first three years of the grant, and twelve in this final year," he noted.

Faculty members see the initial grant and its success as strengthening their approach to move into the second grant, and discover more ways to connect students to research opportunities within the STEM field. Broader opportunities and increased funding mean introducing and connecting students to these opportunities very early in their college careers.

Dr. Ratliff-Crain is anticipating greater participation by more students, increasing faculty stipends for those overseeing summer research connecting students, and getting younger students involved, not just those completing Capstone research. Other possibilities include actively supporting student travel to professional conferences, whether to submit their work or hear the research of others.

Since Augustana commits approximately $100,000 a year to student research and creative scholarships, Dr. Ratliff-Crain suspects the grant funds will open doors for other students, and leverage Augustana resources for all students. "It's one part of what we're doing to support all these areas," he noted.

As an added bonus, Augustana College will host the consortium's annual conference and annual IINSPIRE-LSAMP meeting in Des Moines, Iowa, where students funded by LSAMP grants, faculty, and various speakers with gather for the event on February 3rd and 4th, 2017.  

"It's a great reinforcement of the work both the students and faculty are doing," Dr. Ratliff-Crain said of the Augustana community.    

Sam Schlouch
Senior Communication Director
(309) 794-7833
samschlouch@augustana.edu