Collaborative program helps fulfill students' dreams

African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, and Pacific Islanders make up one quarter of the U.S. population, but less than 100 individuals from these ethnic groups hold a doctoral degree in marine science in the U.S.

Faculty at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) and Hampton University are using a new 4-year National Science Foundation grant to help diversify the nation's future marine and environmental science workforce through a unique program that stresses early involvement in research and strong mentoring as a way to enhance undergraduate performance and the likelihood for success in graduate school.

The collaborative program, known as "Diversity in Research in Environmental and Marine Sciences," or DREAMS, is headed by Drs. Benjamin Cuker and Deidre Gibson of Hampton University and by VIMS' Drs. Kam Tang, Iris Anderson, and Linda Schaffner.

What sets DREAMS apart, notes Gibson, is that "it comprehensively addresses the obstacles faced by minority students." Those include a lack of role models, unawareness of career opportunities, and limited research experience.

Beginning this fall, Gibson and Tang will select the first group of DREAMS students from incoming undergraduates in Hampton University's Marine & Environmental Science, Biology, and Chemistry departments. Selection will be based on academic performance, a written essay, and enthusiasm for the program. Additional freshmen will be selected from each incoming class through 2006.

During the next four years, DREAMS students will sequentially follow a specially designed curriculum that emphasizes classroom instruction, hands-on research, and communications skills. In their freshman year, each group will take an entry-level course that explores aquatic science through lecture, field, and laboratory experience. They will also be required to take a research skills course and attend a series of seminars by invited environmental and biological scientists.

As sophomores, students will gain broad exposure to the many research programs at VIMS by participating in each of five VIMS research areas representing biological, physical, environmental, and fisheries science, as well as coastal & ocean policy. They'll also attend a series of career seminars given by representatives from industry, government, and academia.

As juniors, each student will conduct a yearlong research project in a VIMS laboratory to deepen his or her learning and research experience. Students will also regularly attend VIMS seminars to learn about faculty and student research in a wide variety of marine science fields. Tang notes that "attending these seminars will not only broaden the students' knowledge, but also help them identify potential mentors for graduate studies at VIMS."

Year 4 is the sharing and outreach phase of DREAMS. Senior students will attend professional meetings to present their research projects to the scientific community, and share their knowledge and experience with the local community through teacher workshops, summer science camps, and field trips.

Both Gibson and Tang expect the program to continue past the initial four years of NSF funding. "As the program grows," says Gibson, "senior interns will be recruited to be student mentors. This will help establish DREAMS interns as role models among their peers, and help attract more underrepresented students into environmental sciences."

DREAMS, which is funded by NSF's Undergraduate Mentoring in Environmental Biology program, will build on a long-standing record of successful cooperation between VIMS and Hampton University in training students from underrepresented groups in environmental biology and marine science. Hampton University is one of the top ranked minority-serving institutions in the U.S., with a strong tradition of educating African Americans. It was ranked fourth in the list of best colleges for Black students in the January 2001 issue of Black Enterprise. VIMS is among the nation's leading marine research and education institutes, with a strong tradition of training scientists from underrepresented groups. In recent years, VIMS has granted three PhD and several Master's degrees to Hampton University alumni, and the Institute's Research Experience for Undergraduates program has served 86 underrepresented students since 1989, including many HU students.