FNL Celebrates Year One of Historically Black Colleges & Universities Initiative

By Kate McDermott, staff writer
Photo of FNL Director Dr. Ethan Dmitrovsky and Dr. James Lillard, Morehouse School of Medicine

FNL Laboratory Director Dr. Ethan Dmitrovsky and Dr. James Lillard, Morehouse School of Medicine

Frederick National Laboratory’s Academic Summer Trainees Program provides graduate and undergraduate students with the chance to work with and learn from some of the nation’s leading scientists. The program now includes students from several Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and offers them increased access to advanced research and training, along with experience in biomedical programs, cancer research, and state-of-the-art technologies at FNL.

Expanding Opportunities to Contribute to the Science

The Academic Summer Trainees Program supports the White House Initiative on Advancing Educational Equity, Excellence, and Economic Opportunity Through Historically Black Colleges and Universities, as well as the National Institutes of Health (NIH) UNITE Initiative to develop specific plans and make recommendations to address racial diversity, equity, and inclusion.

To date, FNL’s Partnership Development Office (PDO) has established memoranda of understanding with Howard University, Stillman College, and the Morehouse School of Medicine. PDO is also working to establish similar agreements with several other schools.

Crystal Canja, HBCU program manager in PDO, said many of the initiative’s early efforts focused on building relationships with representatives at the HBCUs to spread the word about opportunities available to them by collaborating with FNL.

She pointed out that although each institution shares the title of being an HBCU, they differ in terms of their capabilities due to variations in facilities, faculty, and overall capacity to work with a federal laboratory. “It really becomes a matter of bandwidth,” Canja said. “We need to meet them where they are.” 

Canja, her supervisor, Vladimir Popov, Ph.D., chief innovation officer in the Center for Innovation and Strategic Partnerships, as well as other members of the FNL team have spoken at each of the participating institutions and participated in career fairs to promote opportunities for aspiring scientists. Last year, Canja spoke alongside Morehouse School of Medicine Professor James W. Lillard, Jr., Ph.D., about the FNL-Morehouse Partnership during the University-Industry Developing Partnerships Mission in Motion HBCU Conference.

“When I was a graduate student, I would have done anything to have worked in a national lab,” Lillard recalled. “So providing students with this rare and unique opportunity to work in these settings means a lot to me. Through this agreement and partnership, our students and faculty have access to literally hundreds of opportunities they didn’t have before, such as access to cutting-edge laboratories and equipment.”

Hands-on Learning in a Federal Lab Setting

That kind of access was especially valuable to Daryllynn Nelson, who is pursuing her doctorate in health administration at Morehouse. She spent the summer analyzing health disparities in prostate cancer under the mentorship of Matt Beyers; Satishkumar Ranganathan Ganakammal, Ph.D.; and Sara Jones, Ph.D., in FNL’s Cancer Research Technology Program. Although her program was online only, Nelson was still afforded the opportunity to collaborate and work with them simultaneously.

“Having access to the technology they use helped me really sharpen my skills, especially with Python computer coding,” she said. “It was an immersive project and all of them were so inspiring. They really pushed me to learn more.”  

Alexis Clark, Patterson’s classmate at Morehouse and a fellow participant in the HBCU program, is pursuing a doctorate in biomedical sciences. For her dissertation, she wants to create a new artificial intelligence tool to identify biomarkers for endometrial cancer. When she graduates, she hopes to pursue a career in industry or government where she can expand data science and biomedical techniques in cancer research to address health inequalities.

In the course of her studies, she has seen firsthand that many of the existing data sets do not reflect genetic diversity, with most available genome sequencing data coming from people of European ancestry. Her goal is to ensure that the medications that are being developed, studied, and evaluated reflect data from diverse African American communities as well.

“This summer was a great opportunity for me to expand upon the theoretical science of the classroom, to gain new skills like machine learning,” she said. “For me, that means making connections with more diverse data sets and expanding them to national databases so we can create more ethnic diversity in the future.”

Both Nelson and Clark continued their training programs with FNL after the summer program ended, but a third Morehouse student found his schedule wouldn’t allow it.

Gerald Jones Jr., is a second-year medical student at Morehouse and was the first medical student to participate in FNL’s Academic Summer Trainees Program. He worked with David Bell, Ph.D., in the Bioinformatics and Computational Science Advanced Computational Laboratory, where he studied the dynamics of a specific protein in B-cell lymphoma and potential immunotherapies to treat that unique cancer.

Given the demands of his medical school studies, Jones couldn’t continue training with Bell when the summer session was over, but the lessons he learned from the experience have inspired and motivated him to continue on a path that he hopes will lead to both practicing and teaching medicine. 

“I would like to subspecialize in pulmonary immunology,” Jones said. “Morehouse School of Medicine is focused on the needs of underserved populations, so I want to use my firsthand knowledge of treatments and practices to expand cancer treatments to people of color.”

A Seat at the Table (or Bench)

For the HBCU student trainees, their mentors, and their school advisors, FNL’s Summer Training program has removed one of the biggest obstacles they face when competing for research dollars and career opportunities: access to high-level, “real world” training.

“One of the reoccurring thoughts I have about diversity and equity is that it is not about ability, it’s about opportunity,” Clark said. “I believe any student anywhere can perform. So, it’s about access to opportunities.”

Lillard said HBCU students demonstrate time and time again that their unique perspective makes their contributions particularly valuable to scientific research. “Our students brought a lot of innovation and creativity to FNL this summer that it would not have gotten from other schools.”

He is especially grateful to the American Cancer Society, which provided much of the funding to make this program possible by supporting the students’ stipends and other fees.

Whether it has been roadblocks to access or funding (or both), students at HBCUs are finally getting a seat at the table—or perhaps more accurately, a seat at the lab bench.

A 2022 Washington Post op-ed noted that according to the United Negro College Fund, the federal funding gap between HBCUs and predominantly white institutions (PWIs) quadrupled, from about $400 to $1,600 per student between 2003 and 2015. “HBCUs have not historically received as much funding as PWIs,” Jones said. “Yet across the board, there is the same innate potential. This FNL program has allowed us the opportunity to participate.”

As the program enters its second year, Canja looks forward to making more connections and spreading the word to other HBCUs. “I enjoy seeing the natural, organic growth of these relationships,” she said. “Whether it’s making connections through colleagues, rethinking the way we do things, or just bonding with new HBCU partners, it has been exciting.”