PREP@Iowa offers research mentorship, career boost

Luis Miguel Garcia Pena says that even though he had experience working in a genetics laboratory as an undergraduate and doing epidemiological and clinical research for Harvard’s school of public health, his “bench skill set was limited.” Before applying to graduate schools, he began looking for research opportunities on the National Institutes of Health (NIH) website, where he saw a listing for a small program in Iowa, that could bolster that skill set.

Born and raised in Puerto Rico, Garcia said at first “the cold winter of Iowa was not particularly appealing for me.” But after reading more about the variety of research projects underway here, he decided to apply. He was easily accepted.

The Carver College of Medicine’s Post-Baccalaureate Research Education Program (PREP) offers members of underrepresented minority (URM) groups the opportunity to deepen their exposure to and experience in biomedical sciences in a rigorous but supportive environment. The year-long, NIH-funded program provides scholars a generous stipend, tuition for a graduate-level course, travel support, and a GRE-preparation course.

Endocrinology and Metabolism Division Director Ayotunde Dokun, MD, PhD, FACE, is the current PI for the PREP@Iowa program. He meets regularly with Garcia and the other four currently enrolled scholars to check in on their progress, offer career guidance, and discuss their future plans. “[PREP’s] mission fits with one of my passions,” he says, of the importance of increasing the number of minorities in biomedical science.

Once enrolled, the PREP scholars apply to and are assigned to work with one of nearly four dozen eligible research scientists in the college. Because of the wide range of areas these scientists cover, scholars are easily matched with a researcher in an area that aligns with their interests. Garcia’s previous work and interest is in diabetes and he was matched with E. Dale Abel, MD, PhD, Director of the Fraternal Order of Eagles Diabetes Research Center (FOEDRC).

Renata Pereira Alambert, PhD, is an assistant professor in Endocrinology and Metabolism and a member of the FOEDRC. Abel suggested that Garcia might make a good fit for working directly with Pereira, who is just starting to build her own lab. Pereira said that Garcia’s application revealed him to be “humble, teachable, hardworking and very responsible,” qualities she values in a trainee. She also saw similarities between his academic path and her own that she appreciated.

Pereira quickly set Garcia to work, first with genotyping animals, but as he proved himself capable, the tasks have increased in difficulty over the year. “Just to mention a few,” Garcia began his list: “Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) tissue assessment, glucose and insulin tolerance tests, assessment of protein expression levels through immunoblotting, cell cultures, and evaluation of relative mRNA expression levels through RT-qPCR.”

Garcia appreciates the commonalities he shares with Pereira as well and finds himself learning lessons not just at the bench but from her example. “Her journey to science is really inspiring to me as a fellow Latino in STEM. She is living proof that there are no limits to what you can accomplish.”

Though his long-term plans of enrolling in an MD-PhD program were in place before his experience in Pereira’s lab and the PREP program, he now has a better understanding of the inner workings of a research lab and the process that makes them function smoothly. “This experience has contributed immensely to my development as an aspiring scientist.”

Pereira’s experience with Garcia has opened her eyes to the possibilities that the PREP program offers. The combination of launching a research lab and her interest in mentoring the next generation are aligned. “I am in a strategic position to maximize these students’ training experience and productivity. My passion for training and their strong commitment can make for a powerful combination.”

Read an interview with another member of the PREP@Iowa program in the FOEDRC and the mentor with whom he is training.

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