Emily McAlpin, a nanomedicine major, applied for a spot in the Integrated Health Sciences and Research Program after watching family members battle cancer and cardiovascular disease. She envisions a future in health and medicine.

Jamaria Jones, a medicinal chemistry major, was inspired to apply to the program as a step toward a career as medical laboratory scientist.

And Hunter Dyche, who is majoring in computational and systems neuroscience, is looking forward to combining hands-on research with analysis and writing. He hopes the experience will be a precursor to authoring a research article and becoming a professor. 

The three sophomores are part of a select group of 20 undergraduates who enrolled in a pilot program this fall in Integrated Health Sciences and Research (IHSR). They were chosen from among more than 70 applicants, primarily from the College of Science.

The program creates a formal framework to integrate undergraduate students with the biomedical and health research taking place at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC.

“While several hundred Virginia Tech undergraduates have carried out research under the mentorship of Fralin Biomedical Research Institute faculty for over a decade, other than the more structured summer SURF programs, these have largely been individual arrangements between a student and faculty member,” said Michael Friedlander, Virginia Tech’s vice president for health sciences and technology and executive director of the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC.

“IHSR represents an entirely new more structured program for Virginia Tech undergraduates interested in participating in leading edge biomedical and health sciences research, including an immersive experience on the Health Sciences and Technology campus in Roanoke,” Friedlander said.

Many undergraduates who have worked in the research institute’s labs have published their work in leading scientific journals and gone on to matriculate in top graduate programs and medical schools.

“We expect even greater things from the IHSR students and stand ready to support them along their career paths,” Friedlander said.

The College of Science is leading the way for its students with the integrated biomedical and health effort at Virginia Tech’s Health Science and Technology campus in Roanoke.

“This program goes to the heart of our mission in the College of Science,” said Kevin Pitts, dean of the College of Science. “Our goal is to give our students the opportunity to picture themselves as scientists, to use their own hands and their own critical thinking skills to conduct real research on issues critical to the world around us.”

Learning by doing

McAlpin said middle school science fairs launched her interest in research, giving her license to design experiments around topics that sparked her curiosity. This summer, she worked under Translational Biology, Medicine, and Health graduate student Mason Wheeler in the lab of cardiovascular scientist Jessica Pfleger, assistant professor of biological science at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute and the College of Science.

“The more time I spend in the lab, the more I could also see myself getting a Ph.D. and doing research,” McAlpin said. “I believe being exposed to both professionals in medical and research settings in the IHSR program will help me in deciding which career path is best.”

Jones said taking virology courses and participating in the SEA-PHAGES program, in which students seek to discover previously unknown viruses that infect bacteria, reinforced her love for science. “When COVID hit and all of these variants began to appear, it made me want to dig deeper and deeper into finding new treatments and ways to manage the numerous diseases around the world. And what better way to do that than biomedical research?”

In addition to gaining research skills, she hopes to gain skills in presenting, critical thinking and communicating toward her goal of becoming a clinical lab scientist.

Of the incoming group, more than half are sophomores who plan to spend part of their next three years at the Roanoke campus. Organizers expect the entering 2023 cohort to be made up almost entirely of sophomores.

As the program progresses, additional Virginia Tech colleges are expected to participate.

The undergraduates will participate in leading-edge investigations, complete courses in biomedical and health sciences and translational medicine, and access professional development and mentoring tailored to their interests.

Students will work in the institute’s labs a minimum of 10 hours a week during the regular academic year and longer through more immersive summer experiences. They will work alongside graduate students, medical students, postdoctoral associates, and researchers on conceptualizing and carrying out research projects related to the grant-funded work in faculty members’ labs.

“This campus is highly experiential,” said Leanna Blevins, assistant vice president for health sciences education and student affairs. “The IHSR program benefits Virginia Tech because of the extensive additional lab space, world-class facilities, and mentoring that the expansion of the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute can offer to more students.”

The team guiding the program includes Blevins; Sarah M. Clinton, associate professor in the College of Science and associate director for the School of Neuroscience; and Carlos J. Pérez-Torres, collegiate associate professor in the College of Science and the Academy of Integrated Science. 

Pérez-Torres splits his time between Blacksburg and Roanoke and brings his experience in cancer research to such courses as Introduction to Biomedical Sciences, a journal club class, and planned electives in the biomedical sciences. He hopes to offer courses such as Basics of Oncology, which he taught as an assistant professor and director of the health sciences major at Purdue University before being recruited to Virginia Tech.  

“We’re creating the scaffolding,” Pérez-Torres said. “This is aspirational, but in two to three years, this set of sophomores will be seniors, and we’ll have 50 to 60 students in the whole program.”

Sophomores like Dyche will spend the fall getting ready for high-level research and then join labs in the spring. 

“I was thrilled when I heard about this program,” he said. “Of course, it will take some time to learn how to work in a lab setting, but if all goes to plan, I hope to continue my undergraduate research directly into my Ph.D.”

Dyche and other enrolled undergraduates will provide guidance for the program, which will also evolve based on feedback from the institute’s researchers and the College of Science. 

Building a campus community

Another feature of the program is a clinical shadowing course, which is a partnership between Virginia Tech and Carilion Clinic and will be exclusive to students in the program. 

“Not every undergraduate gets to go into a Level I trauma center and shadow two different physicians,” Blevins said. She works with Carilion partners to match student interests with different specialties, such as emergency medicine, general surgery, pediatrics, family medicine, infectious diseases, and pain management.

The team also is working to build a campus culture in tandem with an enriching research experience. Students might feel isolated working in separate labs, which is why administrators are focused on building community. They recently held a joint housing fair with other academic programs based in Roanoke, hosted a Hokie Fair highlighting student resources, and helped coordinate a hike to Mill Mountain Star.

“The long-term goal is to create a vibrant Roanoke-based academic program, heavy in biomedical research,” Blevins said.

For now, students live in Blacksburg and have free transportation to the Roanoke campus via the Smart Way Bus. Administrators are building toward a program in which students would live, attend class, shadow a clinician, and conduct research full time in Roanoke their senior year. “I am very grateful and excited for this opportunity over my last three years at Virginia Tech,” Dyche said.

“The student demand is there,” Pérez-Torres added. “Students want research experiences. They want these clinical opportunities.”

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