The Integrative Biosciences (IBS) PhD degree program was launched at Tuskegee University in 2006. Its creation was a disruption in traditional academic leadership, student learning and curriculum development at Tuskegee University. Three colleges, five departments and four research centers joined under the premises of shared resources, shared credit, and shared responsibility. The program components include a core curriculum, lab rotations, peer mentoring, faculty co-mentoring, required internships and teaching assistantships, written and oral qualifying exams, a student journal club series, professional development, and original research published in peer-reviewed journals. In lieu of traditional lab experiences, students design and conduct authentic research, with oversight from core curriculum faculty. Projects are student-led and feature peer and near-peer mentoring, faculty/student teaching, online content/social media, bioinformatics, ethics, community involvement and oversight from core curriculum faculty who deliver courses in Integrative Molecular Biology, Biochemistry, Advanced Biosciences, Ethics and Scientific Communications. Cross-cutting research projects are also a hallmark of the program, with students at different academic levels (grad and undergrad) from different academic backgrounds, including STEM and non-STEM, working together to address science-based issues.
Examples of ongoing disruptive learning projects that evolved from the IBS Program are the Graveyard Project, iBREED experiential breeding program and AgriTREK/ SciTREK/ DiscoveryTREK/ AgDiscovery Programs. All of these ventures involve IBS PhD students who serve as mentors for MS Degree students, undergraduate students and/or 9th-12th grade students.
An example project initiated in 2015 involved IBS PhD students who took the lead and MS and BS students who contributed intellectual property as collaborators and co-authors on the manuscripts in preparation. High School students were also a part of the study via summer programs, with graduate and undergraduate students serving as near-peer mentors (teaching and mentoring). The students are creating a searchable public database, allowing people to freely access the tombstone info and funeral records of more than 10,000 graves in Macon County, AL. Health Disparities are addressed by comparing historically White vs. Black Cemeteries. Student ideas drove the approaches used (e.g., GIS/geo-location uploading into the database so families can pinpoint graves using cell phones and GIS coordinates; accessibility to other researchers). Graduate students presented initial background information, and then brainstormed with undergraduate students to carry out the project with all students integrally involved.
The result will be an online searchable database that includes pictures, death certificate and funeral information, grave coordinates, socioeconomic data, histories of families, census data, military service data, marriage certificates, causes of death, etc. The Tom Joyner Foundation, Tuskegee University Archives, the National Center for Bioethics in Research and Healthcare, and Ancestry.com are partnering with the students, as are five cemetery associations, two city governments, and several county funeral homes.
The Tuskegee University Innovative Plant Breeding Research and Experiential Education (iBREED) program is designed to increase the awareness of opportunities and the number of minority students in the field of plant breeding. Thus, iBREED is disruptive in that it uniquely addresses the “Dying Breed” concept of students shying away from plant breeding, identified by USDA-NIFA and others in this Agriculture 3.0 era. In a discovery, creative, and imaginative manner, iBREED helps students envision themselves as the next generation of plant breeders, changing the world one genome at a time. The first iBREED cohort of 18 students were brought together in a collaborative environment working with their peers in teams. They carried out hands-on plant research, gained first-hand knowledge from distinguished scientists in true conventional crop production as well as modern plant breeding techniques, seed development, genetics and biotechnology; and benefitted from visits and interactive engagement with crop producers, government agencies and agricultural corporations. Modest financial incentives played an important role in recruiting students, sustaining their drive to master the iBREED training and molding professionals in precision plant breeding.
The success of implementing iBREED resulted from the generous support and collaboration of interdisciplinary faculty at Tuskegee University who served as advisors and mentors for the IBS PhD students and facilitated the integral role of the IBS student team who worked with and role modeled for the iBREED students. The IBS PhD and MS students were integrally involved in all crop production, tissue culture, greenhouse studies, field work, phenomics, bioinformatics, etc. activities and projects carried by the students and student teams. As near/peer mentors, their unique role was “disruptive” to student indifference, fostering a new appreciation for the meaning and relevancy of plant breeding. iBREED thrives on the motto that “It is your world, own it towards an amazing career in plant research”. Eighteen TU iBREED Stars were trained in plant breeding and related sciences in the first year (2015) of the iBREED program; tremendous opportunities await them as the world seeks to meet the food and fiber needs of the forthcoming 9 billion world population.
The AgriTREK/SciTREK and DiscoveryTREK (Tuskegee Research and Enrichment Kamp) Summer Institutes and AgDiscovery Summer Program are two-week residential programs that create an awareness of the educational opportunities that are available in Science, Technology, Engineering, Agriculture and Mathematics (STEAM) and related areas through hands-on research, leadership development and personal enrichment activities for 9th through 12th graders. Though similar in their mission and goals, these programs represent two distinct opportunities for individuals interested in learning more about agriculture and related careers. The key to the success of these programs hinges not only on the direct faculty mentorship of these program scholars in the laboratory, but perhaps more importantly on their interactions with undergraduate and graduate students serving as near-peer mentors. The inception of the IBS PhD program at Tuskegee University and its interdisciplinary nature has allowed for a connected pipeline for students interested in STEAM, allowing students with interests in many disciplines an opportunity to be exposed to educational and career opportunities that can address agro-issues broadly. During the summer of 2004, the College of Agricultural, Environmental, and Natural Sciences developed the two-week residential program called the AgriTREK Summer Institute. This USDA/CSREES (now NIFA) sponsored program was implemented to expose 9-12th grade students and teachers from counties in Alabama’s Black Belt to the latest developments in AgriScience and related disciplines. Today, the program continues to give 9th-12th grade students from across the country an opportunity to gain leadership and research training in agriculture and related disciplines.
Beginning in the summer of 2011, using the AgriTREK/SciTREK Program as a model, USDA-APHIS and others, including the USDA-Forest Service, partnered with the College of Agriculture, Environment and Nutrition Sciences to launch AgDiscovery at Tuskegee University. Similar to the AgriTREK/SciTREK Summer Institute, AgDiscovery is an outreach program to help students learn about careers in animal science, veterinary medicine, agribusiness, natural resources, soil sciences and plant sciences.
Similar to the AgriTREK/SciTREK Summer Institute, participants live on a college campus and learn about Agricultural sciences and related fields from university professors, practicing veterinarians and professionals working for the U.S. Government. Scholars gain experience through hands-on labs, workshops, field trips and other group and team building activities as they are challenged to think about real-world agricultural issues. Again using the success of AgriTREK as a model, in 2012, Tuskegee University launched the Howard Hughes Medical Institute-supported DiscoveryTREK Program to include students interested in all science and medical areas, allowing them to gain valuable educational and career information through academic enhancements, leadership training, and experiential learning. Following the completion of this program, students are exposed to unique learning challenges that allow the youth to understand the inner workings of various careers with an emphasis on agricultural sciences, biology, chemistry, computer sciences, engineering, math and physics. Beginning in 2007, IBS PhD Students served as near-peer mentors for students in all three TREK programs. TREK students often worked on graduate students’ projects during their 2-week experience. PhD, MS and undergraduate students helped conduct the research, analyze data, and help the TREK students with poster presentations, all of which was then critiqued by faculty. This multi-level mentoring approach offered the Tuskegee University students the opportunity to develop mentoring and teaching skills while giving the TREK students access to scientific expertise from near-peers, who could provide sustained, hands-on supervision. As the programs are offered concomitantly, ending with an End of the Program Symposium where scholars present their research findings, the opportunity for cross-pollination regarding careers, discussion of agricultural and related issues is immense. In 2015, 81 scholars representing these programs submitted essays to for consideration for the World Food Prize Global Youth Institute, of which seven from two states were selected to participate. Several of which, had little knowledge about agriculture and related issues prior to attending their respective programs; however, given the opportunity through the integrative approach provided by the IBS PhD near-peer mentors, they were able to see how their interests, including engineering, health, etc., intersect with agricultural issues. To date, over 500 high school scholars have participated in these programs, while pursuing a wide variety of majors. Many have gone on to obtain or are currently pursuing careers in agriculture and related sciences at universities and colleges across the country, and many are participating in undergraduate disciplines or related research programs similar to the Tuskegee University iBREED.
Learn more about the AgriTREK/SciTREK and DiscoveryTREK Summer Institutes and AgDiscovery Summer Program at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dvWO24rWCuM.
Our experience indicates that disruption in PhD, MS, undergraduate and pre-college learning track silos; and disruption in traditional course lab, department, and school/college silos; coupled with meaningful hands-on, multi-faceted and integrative learning/ laboratory projects result in new and sustained student interest in research and STEM-related courses and careers.
Written by: Deloris Alexander, Marceline Egnin, Olga Bolden-Tiller and Walter Hill.