Rice and Houston Community College collaborate to diversify access to biomedical research training

$1.8M NIH-funded program to prepare HCC students for careers in infectious disease research

woman scientist

Rice University is collaborating with Houston Community College (HCC) on a new program to address the lack of diversity and basic research skills in biomedical and other STEM research by providing educational and professional opportunities to HCC’s diverse population of students, which includes a significant proportion of low-income and underrepresented minority backgrounds.

Carolyn Nichol (left) and Kevin McHugh (Photos by Jeff Fitlow/Gustavo Raskosky/Rice University)

The innovative program called ACCELERATE (Augmenting Community College Education to Leverage Experiential Research and Advance Training Equity) is funded by a $1.8 million grant over five years from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), one of the 27 institutions that make up the National Institutes of Health.

Despite evidence showing that diverse teams improve biomedical research quality and reduce health care disparities, there remains a significant gap between the demographics of biomedical researchers and the general population, said Kevin McHugh, assistant professor of bioengineering at Rice and the program’s co-principal investigator. This gap is especially pronounced in infectious disease research where communities of color and women as a whole are disproportionately affected.

Historically, white men have largely dominated careers in biomedical science in the U.S. with the current biomedical workforce being 54% white. While gender balance has seen significant progress, the same cannot be said for racial and ethnic diversity. Only about 10% of the U.S. biomedical workforce identifies as Hispanic/Latino and just 6% as Black/African American.

“Due to the limited representation of minority scientists in leadership roles, crucial decisions regarding health care research often lack diverse perspectives. This leads to inefficient resource allocation and the continuation of health care disparities,” said McHugh, who is also a Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas scholar. “While scientific research opportunities are abundant at Rice, such opportunities are scarce at community colleges like HCC, where the faculty is typically not engaged in research activities. This innovative program provides those important opportunities for both students and faculty.”

ACCELERATE will focus on enhancing the educational experience of students in HCC’s biology and engineering departments by providing them with access to resources that will prepare them for careers in infectious disease research and other STEM opportunities. The program will include extracurricular hands-on laboratory modules at HCC’s Student Collaborative Innovation Laboratory (SCiLAB) facility, an immersive research training experience at Rice and the Texas Medical Center (TMC) and the opportunity to build a professional network of mentors and peers.

“ACCELERATE exemplifies Rice’s commitment to increasing diversity and engaging with the local community. We are excited to collaborate with Houston Community College, one of the most culturally diverse schools in the country, to provide students with the tools they need to succeed in biomedical research,” said co-principal investigator Carolyn Nichol, director of the Rice Office of STEM Engagement. “As far as we know, this program is unique in its integration of a community college with a top-tier research university and a distinct medical center.”

Students will enhance their skills through a seminar series, journal club and the hands-on laboratory skills course, and they will have the opportunity to conduct research under the guidance of NIAID-funded principal investigators at Rice or with infectious disease-focused researchers at the TMC. Additionally, students will benefit from mentorship across various professional levels.

“Over the last few years, I developed our new STEM research facility, Student Collaborative Innovation Laboratory at the West Houston Institute. SCiLAB’s primary mission is to provide real-world scientific, technical and research skills for students outside of traditional classrooms,” said co-principal investigator Brian Mahon, HCC professor of biology and founding director of SCiLAB. “We will develop, host and conduct the hands-on laboratory training curriculum for ACCELERATE in line with our mission.”

“Along with acquiring the lab skills, mentorship will be crucial for supporting students from underrepresented backgrounds in their pursuit of careers in biomedical research,” said co-principal investigator Jeffrey Stear, the engineering program director at HCC. “ACCELERATE aims to enhance students’ skills and knowledge, assist them in building professional networks and support their applications to transfer to four-year universities and ultimately to leadership positions in infectious disease research.”

The program will enroll approximately 70-100 HCC students per year in the laboratory course for skills development from which approximately 20 students will be selected to participate in the research-intensive summer portion of the program. All student participants must qualify as an underrepresented population in U.S. biomedical science research as described in the NIH’s Interest in Diversity Notice.

“HCC has a large pool of enthusiastic students with great potential who aspire to pursue biomedical and STEM careers. The SCiLAB facility, the large maker-space and added research resources at the West Houston Institute can facilitate research endeavors and elevate student and faculty research engagement,” said HCC’s Mahon. “We look forward to beginning this fantastic collaboration with Rice University, always focused on the HCC strategic plan to provide HCC students the ultimate student experience and to innovate for student success.”

Award information:

Rice-HCC ACCELERATE: Augmenting Community College Education to Leverage Experiential Research and Advance Training Equity

Project Number: 1R25AI179580-01


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CAPTION: Carolyn Nichol (left) and Kevin McHugh (Photos by Jeff Fitlow/Gustavo Raskosky/Rice University)