Nurturing a New Generation of PEERs
By Bill Dockery
In the future, when engineered bones or cartilage are used to replace burned tissues or broken limbs, there’s a chance Pelagie Favi will have a hand in it.
When the molecular and genomic mysteries of breast cancer are unraveled, chances are that Lenora Pluchino will contribute to the solution.
When a future oil spill is dispersed by a newly engineered protein, Quentin Johnson may be behind it.If any of those things come to pass, it’s certain that an innovative support program for doctoral students at UT will have played a key role in the success.
Favi, Pluchino, and Johnson are working on doctorates with support from the Program for Excellence and Equity in Research (PEER), which seeks to grow the number of PhDs from underrepresented groups in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) disciplines.
UT administers PEER for the National Institute of General Medical Science (NIGMS), which funds the program to increase the number of women, people of color, people with disabilities, and students from low-income backgrounds who have STEM doctorates.
“We’re trying to give PEER students the knowledge they need to build a competitive, productive career as a researcher and professor in their chosen STEM field,” says Cynthia Peterson, who leads PEER and is head of UT’s Department of Biochemistry and Cellular and Molecular Biology. We tell them, “It’s your degree—you are in charge.”
While each student must qualify academically for the department that will grant his or her PhD, the knowledge each student has to acquire involves much more than mastering the complexities of chemical engineering, genome science, or molecular biology.
“One of the key elements of PEER is developing self-efficacy in the students,” Peterson says. “To be successful, to make a genuine contribution to their field, these students must have the confidence that they can meet their own goals and those of the profession.”
In addition to class and lab work, the program exposes its participants to an array of workshops that develop their skills and abilities, including effective college teaching, negotiation, and writing (proposal writing, academic writing, and writing for nonscientific readers). One UT research story written by PEER scholars Favi and Samantha Tracht was published by LiveScience and the National Science Foundation.
But other, more intangible factors also play a role in the program. Each PEER cohort is brought to campus two weeks before school starts to begin orientation and community-building. The students learn to evaluate their own strengths and weaknesses through self-assessment tools like the Myers-Briggs Personality Test. They meet weekly to share what they are learning about doctoral studies.
“One of our big goals is to build community,” Peterson says. “We have weekly discourse meetings that involve some socialization and a lot of professional development.”Quentin Johnson finds that community particularly valuable. A native of McDonough, Georgia, Johnson holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in computational chemistry from Georgia State University. He is working on the dynamic interplay between proteins and aqueous and/or organic solvents. The molecular structure of proteins and the way they interact with water-based and/or organic solvents might be a key to breaking down oil spills in places like the Gulf of Mexico.
“PEER includes a wide variety of majors, which gives us a lot of different perspectives,” Johnson says. “When you are around people only from your own discipline, you get one narrow view. With a varied community, you can step back and figure the problem out.”
Favi has also benefited from the cross-disciplinary nature of the program. Her interest in bioengineering has brought her to the lab of Roberto Benson, a UT professor of materials science and engineering, but her specific interests involve linking bone marrow stem cells from horses to a cellulose scaffolding that may let her create tissues to repair human limbs. PEER has also allowed her to establish a collaboration with research associate professor Madhu Dhar from the large animal clinic in the College of Veterinary Medicine.
“I’ve learned who to go to with certain questions about lab equipment and resources,” Favi says. “I can approach mentors and professors from various departments. It’s making the experience much easier.”
For all the program support, PEER scholars still live an intense academic life. Johnson mentions the effort it takes to balance all the tasks associated with the research—classes, papers, work from his faculty mentor, his own research project. Pluchino, who does research on breast cancer, notes that working with living cells dictates her schedule: “If the cells are ready over the weekend, you work on the weekend.”
Some PEER students come from historically black institutions and many are fresh from bachelor’s programs. The transition to a first-tier research university can be daunting. The PEER orientation is designed to introduce them to the rigors of graduate school while giving them opportunities to meet faculty and to work on teams with other students.
“We make sure they are comfortable with the academic environment and help them conquer their fears early on,” says Sekeenia Haynes, who manages the program. “We are training them to see themselves as the scientists they want to become.”
One of Haynes’s roles is to mentor PEER students, “I’m here to listen to them, offer them counsel and advice,” she says. “They are comfortable with me.”
Haynes says the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and other scientific agencies have found that African Americans, Hispanics, Pacific Islanders, and women are less likely to see someone who looks like them teaching classes in some disciplines.
“The culture of science and engineering departments in many universities is an issue for women and African Americans succeeding in earning doctoral degrees,” she says. “It’s a national problem, which is why there is a national initiative to increase diversity in STEM disciplines.”
Mentoring relationships like those fostered by PEER are one element in resolving the problem.
“In STEM fields where mentoring is taking place, you will find students achieving academically at a higher rate than in those disciplines where mentoring is nonexistent,” Haynes said.
In the first three years, twenty-one students have been supported by PEER, and only one has left the program. That student found she preferred to purse a degree in veterinary medicine and changed to that program. Several of the early participants have passed their preliminary exams and are fully engaged in research for their dissertations.
“When they pass their qualifying exams, it feels good,” Haynes says.
From Peterson’s perspective, the students have met the PEER challenges with energy and creativity and even an element of surprise.
“The PEER students took it upon themselves to put on a seminar for all UT graduate students,” Peterson says. “They planned the whole thing. It was a proud, proud moment.”
Clifton Poodry, director of the Division of Minority Opportunities in Research for NIGMS, came to Knoxville to make the keynote address.
Leonora Pluchino was one of the organizers for that seminar last year. A graduate of the State University of New York in Oswego, where she majored in zoology, Pluchino is interested in cancer as a molecular disease and focuses her research on the role of co-carcinogens on breast-cell carcinogenesis.
“We chose topics picked by students—building your resume, taking charge of your research.” Pluchino says. “We picked the things about graduate study that no one really tells you, things you have to find out for yourself.”
The futures of PEER scholars appear as varied as their backgrounds. Johnson hopes to return to Georgia State as a professor and professional researcher, but he also has ambitions to “do a postdoc overseas and travel the world” before he settles down. Pluchino, who recently passed her prelims, will consider working for a university, a government laboratory, or private industry: “I’m not going to narrow my options at this point.” Favi wants to pursue bioengineering research teaching in an academic setting and “do research to heal those who are ill.”
All three have found resources and support for their goals in PEER.
“PEER has meant building my leadership capabilities and professionalism and helping me be more competitive in my field,” said Favi. “What I’m seeing is that not all students who graduate are competitive in their fields.
“Certain experiences you can gain will set you apart, and PEER is giving me those.”
Pelagie Favi is a native of Benin, West Africa, but grew up in the United States as her mother pursued a PhD in entomology. Her undergraduate degree in chemical engineering is from Montana State University. Favi, a skier and ice skater, came to Knoxville not expecting to enjoy those activities but has been enthusiastically surprised after a snowy winter her first year in East Tennessee. She has an 8-year-old son, Kyle.
Lenora Pluchino grew up in Queens, New York, in a family with a father who had a college degree and a mother worked at home. She has found Knoxville “good for graduate students,” quieter, and with a cost of living that eases financial pressures on students. Though her workload has increased, she found nearby resort city Pigeon Forge to be “an interesting experience; I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Quentin Johnson grew up with his single-parent mother and lived with her and his grandmother: “I know of only one other family member who has a bachelor’s degree. I’m trying to take this as far as I can go so that I can set the standard” for the family. Fresh from school in Atlanta, Johnson finds Knoxville “a nice little college town” that is contemporary and not stuck in the past.Tags: Arts and Sciences • Biochemistry and Cellular and Molecular Biology • Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering • Cynthia Peterson • Genome Sciences and Technology • Molecular Biophysics • PEER