Community Colleges Have Their Day at the National Institutes of Health

September 2009
Hands with pen, notebook and notes

Students from Baltimore and Washington area community colleges got a different taste of campus life on the last Friday of September while participating in the first Community College Day at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Held on NIH's Bethesda campus at the Natcher Conference Center, the day-long event was within driving distance of an array of two-year undergraduate schools that serve the region.

The program featured talks and panel discussions about biomedical careers, clinical trials and basic research. It also offered participants the opportunity to venture to the National Library of Medicine and to buildings housing biomedical laboratories. Approximately 80 participants attended from seven community colleges in Maryland and Virginia.

Evelyn Cruz, Montgomery College student, and NIH Community College Day participant

"NIH is the perfect place to learn about science," said Evelyn Cruz, 27, who is enrolled in nursing classes at the three campuses of Montgomery College in nearby Montgomery County, Md. She particularly valued the opportunity to network, collecting business cards - and confidence - along the way. "I am more likely to view it as okay to ask for help and to turn to someone who knows about the field," she said.

The event, sponsored by the NIH Office of Intramural Training and Education (OITE), with a strong showing on the coordinating committee from the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), provided community college students and instructors an opportunity to both visit the NIH campus and learn about careers and training opportunities in biomedical and health care fields.

"A major goal of training programs in the National Institutes of Health Intramural Research Program is to diversify the biomedical research workforce," explained OITE Director Sharon Milgram, Ph.D. "Our goal is to help students prepare for careers in research and medicine and provide them with the experiences they need to make informed career choices. We want local community college students to understand all the NIH has to offer them and their communities."

Planning committee chairperson Michelle Hamlet, Ph.D., training program coordinator for NHGRI's Intramural Training Office, recognizes the value of community college programs. "What originally compelled me to focus on community college outreach was seeing outstanding research poster presentations from community college students at national biomedical meetings," said Dr. Hamlet, who coordinates training opportunities at NHGRI for students - from high school through graduate school - and for post-graduate researchers. "I realized then that community colleges are diverse not only within their student population, but also in their science and math course offerings, especially in the Washington, D.C. metro area. We have a population of students close by who can make tremendous contributions to research and health care professions."

In July, President Barack Obama put community colleges in the limelight, proposing The American Graduation Initiative, a $12 billion, 10-year plan to help the two-year institutions - and their millions of students - prepare for the workforce. Though not yet enacted, the focus of the president's plan helped reinforce Dr. Hamlet's resolve to make NIH Community College Day happen.

Mario Cerritelli, Ph.D., is chief of the Career Development Section, Intramural Research Program, at the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. Like Dr. Hamlet, he provides career advancement opportunities for researchers. In his remarks during the day's program, Dr. Cerritelli dispensed gems of advice for anyone aspiring to a biomedical career. "Develop your resume to show the type of person you are and the interests you have," he advised. "As you determine your career path, find your passion, which is where you will do your best and be successful."

Christine Barrow, Ph.D., Prince George's Community College Biological Sciences Department, and NIH Community College Day attendee

For Christine Barrow, Ph.D., acting chair of the Department of Biological Sciences at Prince George's Community College in Largo, Md., NIH Community College Day was the culmination of her three-year collaboration with Dr. Hamlet and NHGRI. Dr. Hamlet had arranged for NHGRI researchers to pay special visits to Barrow's classrooms and speak about the field.

Dr. Barrow was particularly pleased to hear from NIH presenters who themselves attended community colleges. "One of the great things about this day is that the students are seeing that they can access these innovative types of opportunities to do research."

Dr. Barrow has herself benefitted from NIH training opportunities: in the mid-1990s, as an NIH biomedical research summer intern, and as a participant in the Intramural Research Training Award program with the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.

She is cognizant of some of the unique needs of her student population. "Many community college students have family responsibilities and full- or part-time jobs, so we need to structure some schedule flexibility into our programs," she said. "I just keep thinking that it is important to send students to NIH, because it opens doors."

Roberto Figueroa, Montgomery College student, and NIH Community College Day participant

Roberto Figueroa, 20, studies biotechnology at Montgomery College's Germantown campus. He attended Community College Day mostly for the information and connections. Several years ago, he interned at an NIH laboratory. Now, he says, he would be interested in part-time work at NIH.

In a pattern similar to many community college students, Figueroa says he plans to study for two years at Montgomery College, then transfer to the University of Maryland for a four-year biology degree. "I want to do some work with molecular biology and study the nucleus," he said. Did he benefit from the NIH Community College Day? "Definitely! I got a lot of contacts and will be keeping in touch. If an opportunity comes up, I know who to talk to."

Fellow Montgomery College student Cruz says she has opportunity in mind too, following a contact she made with an NIH researcher from the National Institute of Nursing Research. "I'm planning to send an e-mail so she can send me information. I didn't know a nurse could get a Ph.D," Cruz said." I would definitely want to study for a master's degree and then a Ph.D."

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Last Reviewed: March 14, 2014