The troubling 'aha' moment came in 1992, as Randolph Grayson, then a professor of plant pathology, physiology, and weed science, looked around the national meeting of the American Phytopathological Society in St. Louis. Thousands of attendees drifted through the conference center. Only a handful were Black like him.

Academia clearly needed a more diverse professoriate. And that, thought Grayson, started with preparing more underrepresented students for graduate school.

The following year, Grayson launched the Multicultural Academic Opportunities Program (MAOP) at Virginia Tech. The academic support unit, now part of Student Success Initiatives, has provided an estimated 5,000 underserved students with mentoring, professional development, financial assistance, and internships.

Tamesha Young is one of them — and she’s not even enrolled at Virginia Tech. The rising senior at North Carolina A&T State University, a historically Black college and university (HBCU), spent 10 weeks immersed in the rigors of graduate research this summer as one of 35 students in MAOP’s flagship Summer Research Internship program. “Ultimately the goal of the internship program,” said Monica Hunter, director of MAOP, “is to diversify our graduate student population."

Interns, 60 percent of whom identify as members of a minority group, spent most days in campus labs such as the Learning Factory in the Grado Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering and the Cognition, Affect, and Psychophysiology Lab in the Department of Psychology. Wednesdays were devoted to GRE prep and team building. Weekends were for kicking back at the Graduate Life Center or soaking up the pleasures of a Blacksburg summer. 

If all went to plan, the program would help MAOP students feel ready for graduate school — and inclined to pursue their studies at Virginia Tech.

Tamesha Young, a Black woman in a lab coat, smiles as she works in an animal science lab.
Tamesha Young, a student at North Carolina A&T State University, hopes to return to Virginia Tech after her experience as a MAOP summer research intern in John Maurer's microbiology lab. Photo by Christina Franusich for Virginia Tech.

Such recruiting strategies seem to be working. In 2012, 20 percent of domestic graduate students were from underrepresented or other minority groups. In 2021, 28.1 percent were.

The MAOP experience worked its magic on Young, an animal science major who did research on plasmid transfer in bacteria in the lab of John Maurer, a professor of microbiology in the Department of Animal and Poultry Sciences. For Young, who had never worked in a lab before, “this experience has kind of opened a different pathway for me” — a simultaneous interest in studying zoonotic infectious diseases as well as the animals that carry them. 

Virginia Tech is now firmly on her list, whether she applies to master’s programs in public health, doctoral programs in veterinary medicine, or both. (The many Blacksburg sunsets she watched helped seal the deal.) “Just being here as a Black woman in STEM, I hope I’m inspiring the next generation of students that want to go into STEM,” said Young. “I want to be a representative to other students to bring awareness to the MAOP program or graduate school in general.”

A couple students in helmets and harnesses prepare to cross a high ropes course.
MAOP students at Venture Out's Challenge Course. Photo by Christina Franusich for Virginia Tech.
Cole Simon, a Black man in a red helmet, looks down while crossing the ropes of a high ropes challenge course.
Cole Simon smiles down from the Challenge Course ropes. Photo by Christina Franusich for Virginia Tech.

What Hunter believes sets the MAOP program apart is an emphasis on building community. “They're in the lab, but they also live together,” she said, “and they are creating these friendships and networks for life. I've had participants that ended up getting married.”

On a sultry Wednesday in July, MAOP students wobbled through Venture Out’s high ropes Challenge Course at the edge of campus as a team-building activity. Cole Simon, a rising senior in biology at Hampton University, picked his way across some highly unstable steps, then pivoted on the platform to cheer for the intern behind him. “Let go and let God!” he told her.

The sheer-grit effort of the ropes course, its problem-solving and falls and bursts of success, offered a useful metaphor for his research internship in the lab of Richard Helm, associate professor of biochemistry. “You have to have the patience to fail, get back up, fail, and then get it right,” Simon said. It's putting the "re" in research.

Simon's internship investigating the structures in a particular microbe was similar to work he'd done in a lab at Hampton University, an HBCU, with a major difference: Helm’s lab is “very upgraded,” said Simon. Some equipment, such as the mass spectrometer, he'd never used before. “If anything, it'll teach me to be more resourceful at Hampton and use everything that I have to get the most out of it.” 

That can-do attitude makes Simon the kind of student who’s likely to succeed in graduate school, at Virginia Tech or elsewhere, said his faculty mentor, Helm. “Cole has an innate curiosity. He just wants to know, he wants to learn.”

Helm pointed out a jigsaw puzzle on one of the work tables in Steger Hall. “Cole did that one,” he said, adding, “Solving a puzzle would make a good test for new assistants coming into the lab, because research is just like solving a puzzle, but in a slightly different way.”

Having solved the puzzle of the lab, as well as the puzzle of how to clamber over the 6-foot-tall letters spelling "HOKIES" on the Venture Out Challenge Course, MAOP interns presented their research at Virginia Tech’s Undergraduate Research Symposium on July 28. Then they headed home to prep for fall semester at their home universities. 

Simon is working on a third puzzle: what do after he graduates from Hampton University in spring 2023. Perhaps grad school, perhaps medical school, but likely some form of higher education. Grayson is cheering for him.

A diverse group of college students pose in front of the ladders and ropes of a high-ropes challenge course at Virginia Tech.
MAOP Summer Research Internship students pose with Director Monica Hunter (front row, far right) to celebrate surviving the Venture Out Challenge Course, one of the team-building outings they did each Wednesday. Photo by Christina Franusich for Virginia Tech.
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