Joining Virginia Tech’s PREP Program was one of the best decisions Tasmine Clement ever made.

Clement, of Brooklyn, New York, earned an undergraduate degree in biological sciences from the University of Notre Dame. Although a major accomplishment, Clement struggled to achieve her ultimate goal of getting into graduate school.

Her story is similar to others who have passed through the PREP Program, Virginia Tech’s Post-baccalaureate Research and Education Program housed in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. The program, one of the oldest of its kind in the country, recruits and accepts a small group of minority students each year who are interested in pursuing a research career in behavioral and biomedical sciences and engineering but cannot get into advanced degree programs. VT-PREP supports students through individualized mentoring, foundation coursework, innovative research, and professional development essential to success in graduate school and competitive doctoral programs.  

“The general goal of PREP is to bring in minority students who are interested in getting a Ph.D. and becoming a scientist. That’s No. 1,” said Ed Smith, program director and  professor in the School of Animal Sciences. “No. 2, these students cannot get into a Ph.D. program because of a number of factors, such as a low grade-point average or not enough research experience. PREP uses a year to make these aspirations possible.”

First funded in 2003 by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the yearlong program supports students through individualized mentoring, foundation coursework, innovative research, and professional development essential to success in graduate school and competitive doctoral programs.

Last fall, the program was renewed by the NIH for the fourth time because of its continued track of impressive outcomes. The next cohort of seven trainees arrived on campus this July.  

PREP scholars are recruited from institutions across the country and abroad. As part of the program, they spend 75 percent of their time in a mentored research program. The additional 25 percent is spent in the classroom.

Smith, along with Luke Achenie, PREP program co-director and professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering, spend a large amount of time helping scholars improve important professional skills, such as public speaking and presenting their research.

“We teach them in terms of talking about their research, about their background, and about marketing themselves,” Smith said. “It’s more than just having research experience and a high GPA.”

When scholars aren’t in the classroom or lab, “they’re most likely goofing around with us,” Smith said.

“We’ve created an environment where we want students to feel comfortable and confident. Professors are humans just like they are,” he said.

During her year in PREP, Clement joined the Tu Lab in the Department of Biochemistry where she analyzed mosquito genes that are important in sexual differentiation in order to reduce the spread of mosquito-borne, infectious diseases. She also took a biochemistry class that supplemented her research experience.

“PREP truly allowed for personal growth and professional improvement by granting me the opportunity to attend research conferences and encouraging me to contribute to a strong support network of diverse scientists,” Clement said.

Clement is just one of many success stories that have emerged from the program.

Of the 116 scholars who have participated, 40 have doctoral degrees, 21 master’s degrees, and one has a pharmaceutical degree. Many students have continued their educations at renowned universities such as Cornell, Yale, Brown, and Carnegie Mellon.

Looking toward the future of the program, Smith and Achenie said PREP will remain steadfast in its support of the university’s commitment to diversity and inclusion.

Achenie said more women than men participate in the program, an important step in increasing the number of women in STEM fields.

“This is a universitywide program, and we look to the support of all the departments across campus as we move this program into the future,” Achenie said.

For Clement, her future is bright. After PREP, she received her master’s degrees in molecular biology and bioinformatics from the University of Michigan.

She, like so many PREP alumni, will soon add “Dr.” to her title.

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