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Mississippi INBRE Adapts to COVID-19 Restrictions to Deliver Summer Research Programs

Thu, 07/09/2020 - 05:52pm | By: David Tisdale

INBRE Summer ScholarsFaculty and staff at The University of Southern Mississippi (USM) operating a premier biomedical training program refused to let challenges presented by the coronavirus pandemic hamper their mission.

Headquartered on the USM Hattiesburg campus, the Mississippi IDeA Network of Biomedical Research Excellence (INBRE) is a statewide network of colleges and universities from across Mississippi, with USM serving as lead institution, whose goal is to increase competitiveness in biomedical research through provision of experiential learning opportunities for undergraduate students from these schools, preparing them for health-related careers serving Mississippians who suffer from a wide range of health disparities.

Mississippi INBRE’s work is supported by a grant from the Institutional Development Award (IDeA), from the National Institute of General Medical Science (NIGMS) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). In the nearly 20 years since its founding, it has garnered more than $70 million in NIH grant funding for its research efforts through 2023.

“With the pandemic preventing physical gathering, our team worked especially hard in going the extra mile to covert two of our three scholar programs into an online summer training experience, so that we can continue the tremendous momentum we’ve built over all these years,” said Dr. Mohamed Elasri, a USM microbiology professor who directs Mississippi INBRE.

The largest intensive student training program of its kind in the state, Mississippi INBRE has trained 688 students to date through their three summer scholars research programs which recruit students from throughout the state and train them in biomedical and public health research in order to address the major health disparities consistently affecting state residents, such as cancer, diabetes, obesity, and infectious diseases.

“Our student training programs originated through offering immersive hands-on biomedical laboratory research experiences for Mississippi students at predominately undergraduate schools that typically do not have ready exposure to a real-world research environment, known as our Mississippi INBRE Research Scholars Program,” said Caroline Iverson, coordinator of Student Programs and Director of the Mississippi INBRE Research Scholars Program. “Providing these students the opportunity to experience first-hand what graduate research would be like as an undergraduate is indispensable to helping inform their decision to continue into biomedical and health-related careers.

“In recent years, we realized the need to address these health concerns of Mississippians could not be solved in the lab alone, and that we could improve the approach by expanding our network to include partnerships with community-based public health programs,” Iverson continued. “Through these partnerships, we were able to develop two more immersive research experiences for students, our Mississippi INBRE Service Scholars (MISS) and our Mississippi INBRE Outreach Scholars (MIOS) Program. It has been these two community-based public health research experiences that we have been extremely successful in adapting to a virtual format this summer, allowing for 48 more scholars to still be trained in evidence-based research techniques, when physical access to research labs and campus was no longer an option for our other program due to the pandemic.”

*The Mississippi INBRE Service Scholars (MISS) is a community-based outreach program designed to complement the biomedical research experience of undergraduate students with community-based, grassroots public health practices that strengthen their undergraduate experience and serve as a pipeline into biomedical research careers in Mississippi. It features a one-week intensive virtual orientation on public health topics and a nine-week professional workforce experience (10 weeks total). The program has been altered to support the virtual delivery of the orientation and the implementation of the workforce experience and research. The MISS program is facilitated through a partnership with My Brother’s Keeper, Inc., a private nonprofit in Mississippi focused on alleviating health disparities for minorities and marginalized populations under the direction of Dr. June Gipson, president and CEO. Additionally, the MISS program is coordinated by Antwan Nicholson as well as other staff members of My Brother’s Keeper Inc. who serve as MISS program mentors and facilitate workshop training instruction.

*The Mississippi INBRE Outreach Scholars (MIOS) Program is a community-based participatory research program for both Mississippi and Louisiana college students. The program runs for 10 weeks from May to July. The Outreach Scholars’ experience begins with a week-long orientation followed by approximately 40 total workshop hours throughout the summer. This year the program was transformed to support the fully online delivery of the program curriculum and implementation of research and community outreach activities. MIOS works with community partners to develop social marketing campaigns based on its research efforts to support healthy lifestyle behaviors among Mississippians and Louisianans to address preventable chronic diseases, health disparities and diet, physical activity and COVID19 preventable behaviors. Community organization partners for the MIOS program include My Brother’s Keeper-Hattiesburg (Joseph Lindsey), Hattiesburg Clinic Diabetes Care (Linda Gwaltney, RD), United Houma Nation Wellness Center (Lanor Curole), and Mississippi Band of Choctaw Diabetes Program (Darlene Willis). At the completion of the program, MIOS will also have prepared an abstract and research poster to present to both professional and community audiences. The MIOS program is facilitated through the Mississippi INBRE Telenutrition Center under the direction of Dr. Jennifer Lemacks, RD, at USM. The MIOS program is coordinated by Sermin Aras, RD, and center investigator, Dr. Tammy Greer, an associate professor of psychology, as well as other faculty, research staff, and graduate students at USM and beyond who facilitate delivery of program workshops and activities, as well as serve as program mentors.

Upon the completion of their summer programs, both the Mississippi INBRE Service Scholars and the Mississippi INBRE Outreach Scholars will have prepared an abstract and research poster to present during the Mississippi INBRE Virtual Research Symposium held the last week of their internship, and again at the Mississippi Academy of Sciences Annual Meeting Feb. 11-12, 2021.

Mississippi INBRE MIOS Outreach Scholars include:

*Raven Mingo, Philadelphia, Miss. (Neshoba Central High School); associate of science and arts, junior at the University of Oregon; research interests include Native American Health Disparities/Psychology. “I hope to gain insight on Native American health disparities in the Deep South, and learn how I may be able to help them,” Mingo said. “I also thought the program was a good start to my career of research.”

*Cindy McCarthy, Ocean Springs, Miss. (St. Martin High School); senior nutrition and dietetics major, USM; research interests include diet, health status, physical activity and plans to become a registered dietician and also work as a college instructor. “I hope to sharpen research skills such as comprehending literature, statistical analysis, and writing,” McCarthy said. “Also, I would like to develop lasting relationships to benefit my career through networking.”

*Jasmine Nguyen, Brandon, Miss. (Northwest Rankin High School); senior Sociology major at the University of Mississippi with plans to become a research scientist. “My research interest lies within health disparities among individuals in the South, particularly African Americans.” Nguyen said.

*Tatiana Willis, Choctaw, Miss. (Neshoba Central High School) a biochemistry/pre-med junior at Mississippi State University (transfer from Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College), who plans to become a pediatrician. “I hope to gain skills in research through INBRE,” Willis said. “I’m so happy I decided to be in this internship. I’ve met a group of great people, and I hope to learn more along this journey.”

*Ozzie Willis, Choctaw, Miss. (Choctaw Central High School); graduate student in sociology at University of Oklahoma; areas of research interest include trauma, race and ethnicity, crime/deviance, and family; career interests include tribal research and societal impacts. “I hope to gain more knowledge within the research field, while also implementing knowledge I already have,” Willis said. “I will also be able to obtain sufficient research experience with a subject that I am passionate about.”

*Benjamin Goudy, Meridian, Miss. (Southeast Lauderdale High School); junior kinesiotherapy major with a minor in psychology at USM; research interests include the relationship between diseases, diet and physical activity behaviors among Mississippians. His career interest is in physical therapy. “I hope to gain a good understanding of how to actually conduct a research study through the (INBRE) program,” Goudy said. “I also look forward to meeting new people and adding to my networking skills as I experience research for the first time.”

*DaKeria McGill, Southaven, Miss. (Desoto Central High School), a senior at USM studying public health and psychology; research focus is on epidemiology and biostatistics, specifically regarding health disparities, infectious disease, and women’s health; career goal is to become an epidemiologist, with research specialty in the southeastern U.S. “My aspirations for the MIOS program is to obtain a sufficient knowledge of research and the many details it consists of,” McGill said. “I would also love to learn more about the true meaning of service above self, and to actively work towards the expansion of knowledge of the greater health. I also aspire to utilize and expand upon my current knowledge and applied learning skills in a new setting of conducting research.”

*Kasha Clay, Houma, La. (Terrebonne High School); senior double-major in English/sociology at Nichols State University; research interests include minority/coastal/indigenous communities; career interests include freelance grant writer in the nonprofit sector, assisting often marginalized communities.

“Through the MIOS program, I hope to expand my knowledge and experience conducting evidence-based research. I also appreciate this opportunity as a sufficient addition to my resume as I look forward to gaining hands-on experience by working on a research project from start to finish,” Clay said. “Becoming more knowledgeable about important issues in my community is another way I will greatly benefit from this program. The MIOS program will enhance my hard skills, and also provide me with friendships and mentors for years to come.”

*Anna Shepard, Madison, Miss. (Germantown High School); senior nutrition major, Spanish minor at Mississippi State University; research focus is chronic disease and COVID-19; career plans include becoming a physician, working in internal medicine. “This summer, I hope to gain not only research experience, but also positively impact the community through our social marketing campaign,” Shepard said. “I am thrilled to have this opportunity to participate in research during a time that is so uncertain. We are forced to work online, but I know that we will still make a difference.”

*Jada King, Bay Springs, Miss.; exercise science major with concentration in pre-medicine, University of Mississippi (junior transfer from Jones College); research interests include helping alleviate the high chronic disease rate among African American adults in Mississippi by learning about their eating and physical activity behaviors; a Mississippi Rural Medical Scholar, King’s career goals include becoming a family medicine physician with a fellowship in sports medicine and work in a rural area in Mississippi, and later becoming the primary care sports medicine physician for a collegiate or professional athletics team.

“I believe having the opportunity to directly research Mississippi residents’ nutrition patterns and to implement ways to improve their habits could help me reach my goal of admission into medical school,” King said. “This opportunity (INBRE summer program) can help me gain more knowledge on nutrition and fitness, and to fuel my passion for fitness and medicine.”

Mississippi Service Scholars participants include:

*Melaan Bender, Jackson, Miss. (Germantown High School); senior chemistry major at Tougaloo College; career interests include those concerning research in environmental sciences and environmental policy.

“Because my research experience prior to this internship was strictly lab and experiment based, I am excited to dive into qualitative research methods,” Bender said. “It’s going to be interesting to hear how others present their findings because the answers are less concrete, and more open-ended. As we delve into research concerning marginalized individuals, I’m hoping to get a better understanding of difference groups and their specified public health needs.

“I know that many people utilize My Brother’s Keeper as a major public health resource – from clinic visits to information – so it will feel really good to contribute my part.”

*Quandarius L. Scrivens, Belzoni, Miss. (Humphreys County High School); sophomore computer science major at Alcorn State University; research interests include slowing the spread of infectious diseases; vaccines for viruses without a cure; disabilities and modifications; and neuropathy; career goals include health and safety engineer or work in infectious diseases treatment and prevention.

“This (INBRE) program has opened a whole new world for me, and if there is one thing I hope to gain from this experience is to better understand the process of the research to treat these viruses and diseases that threaten the lives of so many,” Scrivens said.

*Cameron Wilborn, Lambert, Miss., (M.S. Palmer High School); junior biomedical engineering major at Jackson State University; research interests include health disparities in African American Communities, biomedical devices, prosthetics, and STD and HIV prevention; career

goals include earning Ph.D. in either biomedical engineering or biomedical materials science, then starting a prosthetics and biomedical materials company, while also giving back to the community by providing services for underprivileged African Americans and veterans.

“I expect to enhance my research skills (through the MISS program) so I can be an asset to healthcare in my future endeavors,” Wilborn said. “I expect to improve my teamwork skills by bonding with my peers and mentors while working on research. I expect to gain skills that will help me be a better-rounded individual, and take on any problems that I may face at school as well as in the workforce. I also expect to make a change in the public health field by conducting research through Mississippi INBRE.”

*Taylor Fry, Natchez, Miss. (Natchez High School), Jackson State University, bachelor’s in psychology, current graduate student in clinical mental health counseling; research interests include neuroimmunology, the relationship between mental health and public health, and the relationship between mental health and chronic health diseases; career goals include becoming a clinical psychologist focusing on diagnosis, counseling, treatment and rehabilitation, and to create a foundation and programs promoting mental health awareness and focus on the integration of public health educate underrepresented communities.

“I am honored to be a part of such amazing programs. We’re only three weeks into the program and my expectations have been exceeded, despite the unforeseen circumstances of a virtual internship due to COVID-19,” Fry said. “I’m extremely pleased with my mentors, Deja Abdul-Haqq and Joseph Lindsey, as we are diving into compelling research. Although we have not been able to meet face to face, I still hope to gain research experience and become more familiar with the research process. I want to continue to build my knowledge and expertise in the area, while building a network of lifelong mentors. “Not only am I getting research experience, but I am building a professional network and enhancing professional skills as well. I have very high expectations for the duration of the program, and am excited for what my future holds with Mississippi INBRE and My Brother’s Keeper.” For more information about Mississippi INBRE, visit