Research program awarded $3 million for biomedical careers

John Michael Simko

Dr. Steven B. Oppenheimer is one of the leaders of the MARC program. He has been involved in the program since its inception. Sundial File Photo

CSUN is the recipient of a $3 million, five-year grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for the Minority Access Research Careers (MARC) program to continue providing support for underprivileged minority college students in the biomedical field.

The MARC Undergrad Science Training and Academic Research (U-STAR) program is a NIH fundeds program designed to mentor minority students and give them research experience to compete at the graduate level. According to the NIH, CSUN is one of 18 California universities that participate in the MARC U-STAR program.

“It’s important that everyone has access to higher education,” said Dr. Maria Elena Zavala, director of the MARC program and biology professor. “I do what I do because of the lack of opportunities for my parents. It’s for everyone who was never provided with an opportunity and doesn’t have the financial means.”

Zavala said the MARC U-STAR program was started in 1990 with four CSUN students and has developed with the NIH ever since. The money helps participants involved with the program and allows improvement in the College of Sciences and Mathematics.

Dr. Carrie Saetermoe, chair of the Psychology Department said Maria Elena Zavala has done more to diversify the sciences than the vast majority, if not all other sciences.

Students involved with MARC are offered opportunities to participate on various research projects, receive mentoring, professional guidance, graduate school preparation, attend special seminars and present their research results at scientific conferences.

“CSUN has an excellent reputation for providing well trained students to excel,”   Zavala said. “CSUN has a very high rate of Ph.D.s for MARC students. The average for most schools is something like 50 percent, but CSUN MARC students have an 89 to 90 percent success rate with people graduating and attending places like UC Berkley, UCLA, UC Irvine, UC San Diego, Harvard and John Hopkins University.”

Dr. Steven B. Oppenheimer, a biology professor and MARC faculty member, said the MARC program is mostly comprised of biology and psychology majors, but the program is available for students trying to obtain any biomedical behavioral or basic science degree who plan on pursuing a Ph.D. or combined M.D. and Ph.D. degree.

These biology, chemistry, mathematics, psychology, and kinesiology majors are encouraged to go directly from undergraduate studies to Ph.D. programs, Oppenheimer said.

As a result, it is a very rigorous process to be considered for the MARC program, Oppenheimer added. There are usually 300 to 400 eligible students, but only a few are invited to compete for spots.

After an intense summer orientation, about a dozen students are accepted into the program, he added. Those students receive partially reduced tuition fees, stipends, travel support to conferences and research for each individual.

“Without the NIH, there is no program,” Oppenheimer said. “Students receive fellowship stipends to advance themselves academically. They wouldn’t be able to do all the research for biomedical, chemistry, and health science.”

Zavala said most of the grant will probably be spent on stipends, but has hope with one proposal.

With the new grant, there is a proposal to initiate science 100 classes that are specifically tailored for each science major by having relevant activities and readings rather than a basic broad spectrum science class, she said. Most science majors do not take the regular science 100 class because it is “too general” and “students don’t believe they won’t get enough out of it.”

Zavala said she is hopeful that the first batch of students will try the newly proposed science classes and see the appealing advantages in the Fall of 2011.

MARC has had a huge impact on the campus by creating enhanced research environments, she added.

Quality research has impacted the campus and encouraged professors to publish more. As a result, more grants and financial contributions have led to newer, expensive equipment and the creation of additional courses and class sections.

Zavala and Oppenheimer lead the MARC program and have been involved since the inception. They were CSUN’s first and second recipients of the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Mentoring.