Undergraduate research at WUSTL gets a boost from Amgen Foundation grant

Thirteen top universities are partners to increase the recruitment of biomedical scientists

Washington University in St. Louis has received a four-year, $1 million grant from the Amgen Foundation to provide hands-on biomedical laboratory experience to undergraduates through the Amgen Scholars Program.

The 10-week, intensive undergraduate summer research program, which will begin in May 2011, will allow U.S. citizens or permanent residents to participate in activities designed to build confidence and maturity as a scientist.

Scholars will conduct independent research with Washington University scientists; participate in workshops, team-oriented activities and weekly research lectures; mentor a high school student interested in science; and receive career and academic advice. They also will write a paper and present a scientific poster at the end of the summer.

“Research is at the heart of Washington University’s academic mission,” says Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton. “We are grateful to the Amgen Foundation for their generous support of the Amgen Scholars Program — a program that will encourage talented undergraduates to improve their skills in the area of scientific inquiry and research. This is a very forward-thinking gift that will serve to increase the pool of future scientists.”

The program is similar to a summer research program already in place at the School of Medicine called the BioMedical Research Apprenticeship Program (BioMedRAP). That program is specifically for undergraduate students from groups traditionally underrepresented in the biomedical sciences.

Kathryn G. Miller, PhD, professor of biology and chair of the Department of Biology in Arts & Sciences, and John Russell, PhD, professor of developmental biology and associate dean for graduate education, are program co-directors.

“We are very excited to have been selected to partner with other outstanding institutions in the Amgen Scholars Program,” Russell says. “The Amgen Foundation has been visionary in establishing the Scholars Program to encourage outstanding American students to pursue careers in biomedical research. The program will allow us to build on an existing, nationally recognized summer program infrastructure to recruit outstanding students both from within Washington University as well as the Midwest and nationally to obtain a world-class research experience.”

“We have a big focus on undergraduate research at this university,” Miller says, “and that’s largely as a result of programs that we’ve had for a number of years in the biomedical sciences that are now blossoming into campus-wide opportunities to engage in scholarship in every discipline. Amgen scholars might work with people studying the cell’’s cytoskeleton, doing computational biology, or using chemical methods to understand problems in neurobiology. We have the faculty interested in having undergraduates in the lab that I think can make this program a terrific success.”

“Even if students in the program decide not to become bench scientists, they’ll gain an understanding of science through this program and what it means to have data that does or does not support a conclusion, and that, too, is important,” she says.

Washington University’s program will be administered through the Division of Biology and Biomedical Sciences (DBBS), a university-wide consortium that provides scholars with a choice of 450 potential faculty mentors. Rochelle Smith, manager of Diversity Affairs, Summer Programs and Community Outreach for DBBS, is program manager.

The Amgen Scholars Program was launched by the Amgen Foundation in 2006 with 10 partner universities in the United States to provide undergraduates the opportunity for laboratory research experiences under the guidance of leading scientists in academia. In 2008, the program expanded to include three European universities. Washington University joins the program this year and is the only university in the Midwest to participate.

In the past four years, nearly 1,200 Amgen Scholars — representing 327 different colleges and universities across the United States and Europe — have explored areas of research beyond what they may be able to do as part of their regular undergraduate education. Today, more than 70 percent of program alumni who have graduated from college are now pursuing an advanced degree or a career in science or engineering, with many in scientific doctoral programs at top universities worldwide.

“The success of the Amgen Scholars program is due in large share to our university partners,” says Jean J. Lim, president of the Amgen Foundation. “These leading universities provide undergraduates from around the country with an inspiring, hands-on research experience that often leads them to pursue advanced degrees and a career in the sciences.”

The U.S. and European programs each will continue to host a summer symposium allowing students to share their summer research projects, learn about biotechnology, and hear firsthand from leading industry and academic scientists. In addition, travel awards will help support Amgen Scholar alumni currently enrolled in master’s, doctoral and MD/PhD programs in scientific fields to share their research at scientific conferences.

In its first year, the Amgen Scholars program received about 2,200 applications. By 2010, that number increased to more than 5,200 applications, with only 315 openings available across the U.S. and Europe.

The 10 U.S. program partners are:

  • California Institute of Technology
  • Columbia University/Barnard College
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • Stanford University
  • University of California, Berkeley
  • University of California, Los Angeles
  • University of California, San Diego
  • University of California, San Francisco
  • University of Washington
  • Washington University in St. Louis

The three European program partners are:

  • Cambridge University, UK
  • Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm, Sweden
  • Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitat, Munich, Germany

Financial support for students is a critical component of the program, which seeks to ensure that eligible students, regardless of their financial status, are able to participate.

The university will support about 25 students in the program each summer. About one-third will be WUSTL undergraduates, while the rest will be from other colleges and universities, Russell says.

“We get a lot of requests from students outside the university looking for summer research opportunities, so it’s really good, both for the students and for us, that the program is open to students from other schools,” Miller says.

Applications are now being accepted for the 2011 Amgen Scholars program. For more information about Amgen Scholars or an application, visit amgenscholars.com.