UNCF and Merck partner to help African Americans pursue careers in scientific research
engineering and bioengineering majors are encouraged to apply
By Heidi Lynn Russell
Senior Contributing Editor
Brandyce Coes can pinpoint the moment that set her on a research path in biochemistry. During her freshman year at Claflin University (Orangeburg, SC), she heard a talk by her school dean entitled "The world needs visionaries."
"He said, 'You need different types of research to be more competitive,'" Coes recalls.
Now a senior, Coes is living that vision as part of an elite fellowship, the UNFC/Merck Science Initiative (UMSI, umsi.uncf.org). Each year, the prestigious program awards fifteen undergraduate scholarships, twelve graduate dissertation fellowships and ten postdoctoral research fellowships to outstanding African Americans. UMSI scholarships and fellowships are open to students at any college, university, medical school or research institute in the U.S.
Merck (Whitehouse Station, NJ) is a global healthcare products company; UNCF (the United Negro College Fund) is the nation's largest private provider of scholarships.
Merck and UNCF announced the initiative in July 1995 with the purpose of increasing the number of African American students pursuing careers in the biological and chemical research sciences and engineering. African Americans hold fewer than 2 percent of PhDs in biology and chemistry research, notes Dr Jerry Bryant, director of the initiative.
In 2011, Merck and the Merck Company Foundation committed another $14.5 million to fund UMSI through 2016. According to Bryant, Merck is the only pharmaceutical company that has put this type of funding toward a comprehensive program specifically geared to African Americans. So far, 554 Fellows have received support for education and research at more than 160 colleges and universities across the country.
"Merck has been visionary in its support of education among minorities in this nation, and it has really put its resources behind that effort," Bryant says. "Merck has been fully engaged in this process."
Program qualifications and awards
For undergraduate awards, applicants should be on track to continue their science educations and pursue science and engineering careers. The program recently started accepting engineering majors at the undergraduate, as well as the graduate, level. Merck's manufacturing division is now involved with the program, along with Merck Research Labs, where mentors have been engaged since the beginning. Engineering students tend to be chemical engineering and bioengineering majors, but some have been in mechanical, computer and process engineering as well.
"Most have done some kind of research as part of an internship, a university post or an outside work situation, or as a volunteer," Bryant says.
Undergraduates receive scholarships up to $25,000 for tuition, room and board, and fees for the senior year. They come to Merck for a summer internship for ten to twelve weeks, where they work under a Merck mentor.
Engineering has always been included at the graduate and postdoctoral levels of the program, says Bryant. Grad-level participants are mostly chemical engineers and bioengineers.
"The real key is that we are looking for candidates who can really benefit from mentoring. All the mentors at Merck are staff scientists who can share the requirements of success with students," explains Bryant. "In the Merck Manufacturing Division and Merck Research Labs, most of the biological, chemical and engineering sciences are represented."
A research background
Before her sophomore year, Coes had a summer internship with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Athens, GA. She tested polymers used for the gel capsules of pills in different acidic solutions to determine how they would react if thrown away and tossed into a landfill. She spent the next summer at Harvard synthesizing tools to study inflammation in people with asthma.
Coes applied to UMSI after hearing Bryant speak at the Emerging Researchers National Conference in STEM. Her "green" research from the first internship, she says, was an important factor in her acceptance into the program. During the summer before her senior year, she worked in Merck's process chemistry department researching an eco-friendly and economical method for chromatography. The data from the method she studied, supercritical fluid chromatography, revealed it to be the most applicable.
Dr Jimmy DaSilva served as her mentor and Coes benefited from his mentoring style and guidance.
"He'd give an overall idea of what I was supposed to do and leave me alone, but if I had questions, I could still come ask him," she notes. "I never felt intimidated when I got something wrong. He urged me to figure things out on my own.
"The research I conducted at Merck was phenomenal," she says. "I'm interested in pharmaceuticals and got to see the research aspect of pharmacy at a 'Top 100' company."
She was also thrilled with the financial support for her senior year.
In the fall of 2012, Coes plans to attend the South Carolina College of Pharmacy at the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) in Charleston. She also hopes to return to Merck in the summer for another internship, separate from the UNCF/Merck program.
A network of lasting relationships
Coes plans to re-apply to the program as a graduate student or post-doc. "I've been advocating for more students to apply," she says. "You get to meet other Fellows on the graduate and postgraduate level, and it's great to have those connections. I've met former Fellows who went to MUSC and will stay in contact with them. It's a good network."
Bryant notes that the relationships among the program's Fellows are integral to their career progression and personal development. "We keep the Fellows together in a virtual environment on our website," he notes. "The relationships span many award years, fields and institutions."
The exclusive UMSI "My Fellows" web page is so successful that when the initiative hosted the first and only Fellows reunion in 2006, about 250 attended. "It was a rare opportunity to see that many African American scientists in one place at one time," says Bryant. "If you go to a national meeting, you will see a small representation, but here, it was 100 percent." This gathering prompted the Fellows to form their own nonprofit organization.
Past Fellows of note include an astronaut, Dr Robert Satcher, Jr; a Rhodes Scholar, Dr Julia James; several Fulbright Scholars and five holders of endowed chairs at academic institutions. "This is a very accomplished and successful cadre of individuals," Bryant states proudly.
The program continues to track, engage and mentor students long after they finish their UMSI fellowships, Bryant says. A database is continually updated, with contact information going back to 1996, and individual Merck mentors remain in contact with Fellows as well. "The award can last from twelve to twenty-four months, but the mentoring relationships may continue much longer."
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