Emily McAlpin, a nanomedicine student, applied for a place in the Integrated Health Sciences and Research Program after watching family members battle cancer and cardiovascular disease. She sees a future in health and medicine.
Jamaria Jones, a medicinal chemistry student, was inspired to apply to the program as a step toward a career as a medical laboratory scientist.
And Hunter Dyche, who specializes in computational and systems neuroscience, looks forward to combining hands-on research with analysis and writing. He hopes the experience will be a precursor to writing a research article and becoming a professor.
The three sophomores are part of a select group of 20 students who enrolled in a pilot program in Integrated Health Sciences and Research (IHSR) this fall. They were selected from more than 70 applicants, mostly from the College of Science.
The program provides a formal framework for integrating undergraduate students into the biomedical and health research that occurs at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC.
“While several hundred Virginia Tech students have conducted research under the direction of faculty at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute for over a decade, aside from the more structured SURF summer programs, this has been largely individual arrangements between a student and a faculty member,” said Michael Friedlander, Vice President of Virginia Tech for Health Sciences and Technology and Executive Director of the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC.
“IHSR represents an entirely new, more structured program for Virginia Tech students interested in participating in leading-edge biomedical and health science research, including an immersive experience at the Roanoke Health Sciences and Technology campus,” said Friedlander.
Many students who have worked in the research institute’s laboratories have published their work in leading scientific journals and enrolled in top graduate programs and medical schools.
“We expect even greater things from IHSR students and are ready to support them in their career paths,” said Friedlander.
The College of Science is leading the way for its students with the integrated biomedical and healthcare efforts at Virginia Tech’s Roanoke Health Sciences and Technology campus.
“This program goes to the heart of our mission at the College of Science,” said Kevin Pitts, Dean of the College of Science. “Our goal is to give our students the opportunity to imagine themselves as scientists, to use their own hands and their own critical thinking skills to conduct real research on issues that profoundly affect the world around us.”
Learning by doing
McAlpin said junior high science fairs sparked her interest in research and gave her license to design experiments on subjects that piqued her curiosity. This summer she worked under Mason Wheeler, a graduate student in translational biology, medicine and health, in the lab of cardiovascular scientist Jessica Pfleger, assistant professor of life sciences at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute and College of Science.
“The more time I spend in the laboratory, the more I could imagine doing a doctorate. and do research,” said McAlpin. “I believe the exposure to medical and research professionals through the IHSR program will help me decide which career path is best.”
Jones said taking virology classes and being part of the SEA-PHAGES program, where students try to discover previously unknown viruses that infect bacteria, has fueled her love for science. “When COVID hit and all these variants started to appear, I wanted to dig deeper and deeper into finding new treatments and ways to treat the many diseases around the world. And what better way to do that than biomedical research?”
In addition to gaining research skills, she hopes to gain presentation, critical thinking, and communication skills to achieve her goal of becoming a clinical laboratory scientist.
More than half of the incoming group are sophomores who plan to spend part of their next three years on the Roanoke campus. Organizers expect the entering 2023 cohort to consist almost entirely of sophomores.
Additional Virginia Tech colleges are expected to participate as the program progresses.
Students will participate in cutting-edge research, complete courses in biomedicine and health sciences and translational medicine, and have access to professional development and mentoring tailored to their interests.
Students will work a minimum of 10 hours per week in the institute’s laboratories during the regular academic year and longer through more intensive summer experiences. You will work with graduate students, medical students, postdocs, and researchers to design and conduct research projects related to the fellowship-funded work in faculty members’ laboratories.
“This campus is very experiential,” said Leanna Blevins, associate vice president of education and student affairs for health sciences. “Virginia Tech benefits from the IHSR program because of the extensive additional laboratory space, world-class facilities and mentoring that the expansion of the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute can offer to more students.”
The team running the program includes Blevins; Sarah M. Clinton, associate professor at the College of Science and associate director of the School of Neuroscience; and Carlos J. Pérez-Torres, associate professor at the College of Science and the Academy of Integrated Science.
Splitting his time between Blacksburg and Roanoke, Pérez-Torres brings his cancer research experience to bear on courses like Introduction to Biomedical Sciences, a Journal Club class, and planned electives in the biomedical sciences. He hopes to offer courses like Fundamentals of Oncology, which he taught as an assistant professor and director of the health sciences major at Purdue University before being hired at Virginia Tech.
“We’re making the scaffolding,” Pérez-Torres said. “That’s ambitious, but in two to three years that group of sophomores will be seniors, and we’ll have 50 to 60 students across the program.”
Sophomores like Dyche will spend the fall preparing for high-level research, then come to the labs in the spring.
“I was excited when I heard about this program,” he said. “Obviously, it will take some time to learn how to work in a laboratory environment, but if everything goes according to plan, I hope to be able to continue my undergraduate research directly into my PhD.”
Dyche and other enrolled students will lead the program, which will also evolve based on feedback from researchers at the institute and the College of Science.
Building a campus community
Another feature of the program is a clinical internship course, which is a partnership between Virginia Tech and Carilion Clinic and is intended exclusively for program students.
“Not every student is allowed to go into a Level I trauma center and shadow two different doctors,” Blevins said. She works with Carilion partners to align student interests with diverse specialties such as emergency medicine, general surgery, pediatrics, family medicine, infectious diseases and pain management.
The team also works to build a campus culture along with an enriching research experience. Students may feel isolated working in separate labs, so administrators are focused on building a community. They recently hosted a joint housing fair with other Roanoke academic programs, hosted a Hokie Fair highlighting student resources, and helped coordinate a hike to Mill Mountain Star.
“The long-term goal is to create a vibrant academic program in Roanoke that is heavily focused on biomedical research,” Blevins said.
Currently, students reside in Blacksburg and have free transportation to the Roanoke campus on the Smart Way Bus. Administration is working on a program where senior students will live in Roanoke, attend classes, accompany a clinician, and conduct full-time research. “I am very grateful and excited for this opportunity in my final three years at Virginia Tech,” said Dyche.
“The student demand is there,” added Pérez-Torres. “Students want research experience. They want those clinical opportunities.”