"Now more than ever, students have an appetite for building bridges across disciplines,” says Prof. Alba Guarné, Associate Dean, Biomedical Sciences, in McGill’s Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences.
To feed that appetite, Guarné has envisioned a new summer program for undergraduates to immerse themselves in the Faculty’s multidisciplinary research environment. Named the McGill Biomedical Research Accelerator (MBRA), the program will fast-track promising undergraduates onto a career path in biomedical research.
Guarné is the academic leader of the School of Biomedical Sciences. Launched in April 2020, the School is a collaborative hub that encompasses seven departments — anatomy and cell biology, biochemistry, biomedical engineering, human genetics, microbiology and immunology, pharmacology and therapeutics, and physiology. It’s comprised of more than 250 research laboratories and two world-leading research hubs — the McGill Genome Centre and the Rosalind and Morris Goodman Cancer Institute.
Slated to launch in summer 2022, the MBRA will be a paid internship program for students entering their final year of undergraduate studies. Those selected will demonstrate a strong interest in pursuing biomedical research at the graduate level. Over the course of the 16-week program, trainees will work on a collaborative research project and will receive comprehensive professional skills training, culminating in a presentation at a School-wide research symposium.
The Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences and participating research laboratories will contribute financially by covering the research and training costs. Further funds are currently being sought from philanthropic donations to provide the first cohort of 20 students with individual bursaries.
A catalyst for emerging scientists from diverse backgrounds
Guarné is passionate about creating learning environments that encourage those from under-represented groups to join the next generation of scientists.
“With the MBRA, we’re building a program in which capable students from any background will flourish as researchers,” she says. The program is designed to increase access for students from equity-seeking groups as well as those who may have followed non-traditional educational paths.
MBRA trainees will engage with the McGill community and have access to advisors, researchers and faculty members. After completing the program, the students will have gotten a leg up on the often complex application process to graduate school.
Crucially, they will also have a better understanding of how to find a research supervisor and how to apply for funding for their first year of graduate studies — removing significant barriers for a new cohort of outstanding biomedical scientists.
A launching pad for a scientific career
Suleima Jacob-Tomas, MSc’19, is in her second year of McGill’s PhD program in biochemistry. She knows first-hand the importance of early encouragement in choosing a scientific career. “As an undergraduate at Berry College in the U.S., I was fortunate to have had professors who gave me the opportunity to gain research experience during my third and fourth years,” she says.
Jacob-Tomas notes that not many undergraduates have access to this all-important experience. “I believe it’s critical for universities to offer summer research internships to help undergraduates develop the research skills that would serve as the foundation for a future career in science,” she says.
Attracting global talent to Montreal
Guarné herself has an international C.V. She followed up a PhD from the University of Barcelona with a postdoctoral fellowship at the National Institutes of Health in the U.S. She came to Canada in 2003 for a faculty position at McMaster University.
In 2017, Guarné joined McGill as a professor of biochemistry and was subsequently appointed associate director of the McGill Centre for Structural Biology. In April 2020, she assumed the leadership of the School of Biomedical Sciences. She holds the Canada Research Chair (Tier 1) in Macromolecular Machines in DNA Repair.
Guarné notes that the MBRA is a one-of-a-kind opportunity for undergraduates to explore their scientific curiosity before specializing at the graduate level. The students will also find mentors and meet like-minded peers — not to mention they’ll be paid to do research, while spending the summer in Montreal.
Javier Rodriguez Gonzalez is in his fifth year of the PhD program in biochemistry. A defining moment for him as an undergraduate was the chance to come to Montreal from Mexico for a research internship.
Accelerating tomorrow’s biomedical scientists
Treasa O’Hagan, BSc’21, became interested in research in her first year of undergraduate studies at McGill. Intrigued by experimental design and technique, she looked for a place that would allow her to develop those skills while also following her passion for molecular biology and chemistry.
MBRA participants will benefit from professional development workshops, as well as weekly lunch sessions where they will learn about ongoing research at the School of Biomedical Sciences. Other McGill summer students will be welcome at these lunch sessions, and MBRA “alumni” can return for a second summer as mentors once they have enrolled in a graduate program at McGill.
The first offering of the McGill Biomedical Research Accelerator is targeted for summer 2022. The program is now open for applications, with a deadline of December 20. The goal is to continue each summer on an annual basis.
Times of change and opportunity
Alba Guarné notes it’s an exciting time for the newly created School of Biomedical Sciences. A new educational model has been created that provides a unique platform for undergraduates to explore the intersection between medicine and science.
“I’m a firm believer that times of change are times of opportunity,” says Guarné. Her vision for the MBRA is to recruit outstanding new talent to McGill, who will come from diverse backgrounds and spark exciting multidisciplinary collaborations.
She notes the program offers an exceptional opportunity for undergraduates to participate in high-level, cutting-edge research across the many fascinating areas of the biomedical sciences.
“The opportunity is now,” says Guarné. “Why miss this chance to recruit the next generation of scientific leaders?”
To learn how you can support the McGill Biomedical Research Accelerator, contact Ilan Elbaz, Development Officer, Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, at 514.812.4526.
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