LAWRENCE — Humans depend on a planet rich in biological diversity to provide essentials like food, water, medicine, stable climate conditions, economic prosperity and more. So how will we fare as rapid climate change continues to alter ecosystems and drive plants and animals to migration or extinction?
A new training program based at the University of Kansas will help develop a scientific workforce equipped to answer this complex question. With support from a $2.9 million grant from the National Science Foundation, the BioGEM program will prepare postbaccalaureate scholars to better understand organisms’ past responses to changing environments so they can better predict — and hopefully mitigate — devastating future impacts.
“The urgency and complexity of addressing the current climate-mediated biodiversity crisis requires an all-hands-on-deck approach. Interdisciplinary training of diverse early career scientists will help to bring new and creative solutions to this problem,” said Paulyn Cartwright, professor of ecology & evolutionary biology and the lead investigator on the grant. “I am excited to recruit scholars to our campus and expose them to the breadth of research we have going on here and at our partnering institutions in biodiversity science, ecology and evolution.”
Over a three-year period, BioGEM will recruit 30 recent bachelor’s graduates who have limited or no prior research experience to work with mentors on interdisciplinary research projects that span time scales, biological hierarchies and organisms.
“Research and Mentoring for Postbaccalaureates programs like BioGEM are important because they provide critical training for students who had limited research opportunities during their undergraduate years,” said Deana Erdner, program director in NSF’s Division of Biological Infrastructure. “The potential impact of programs like BioGEM goes beyond the number of students trained or institutions in their network. They are creating models from which we can learn how to best recruit and retain promising students in STEM.”
Although BioGEM scholars will be based at KU and utilize the university’s world-class facilities and museum collections, they also will benefit from partnerships with Haskell Indian Nations University, Emporia State University, Rockhurst University, Stowers Institute for Biomedical Research and BioKansas.
“Forming networks of mentors and mentees will better enable cross-disciplinary training for the BioGEM scholars and prepare them for a wide range of careers in research,” Cartwright said. “For example, scholars will get mentoring on teaching and research at a tribal college and other primarily undergraduate institutions. Stowers will provide them with experience at a research institution, and BioKansas will help connect them with local industries and state agencies. Through these networks, we hope to develop sustained collaborations that last beyond the BioGEM program.”
BioGEM will reside in KU’s Office for Diversity in Science Training, which runs a continuum of federally funded programs designed to broaden participation in science and ultimately expand the workforce trained to solve some of humanity’s most pressing problems. Most of the programs are supported by the National Institutes of Health and, therefore, prepare students for biomedical careers.
“But BioGEM is funded by NSF and is focused on training students interested in ecology, evolution and biodiversity science, so we can now accommodate students with a wide range of research interests,” Cartwright said. “BioGEM provides another step in the career pathway of students who are motivated to pursue graduate STEM degrees but might want another year of research experience after graduating college. With the exposure BioGEM can provide, all the scholars will be more competitive for graduate school.”
In addition to their individual research experiences, scholars will engage in a weekly series of professional development workshops and hands-on training covering a wide range of research methods. Mentors will be trained based on a curriculum developed by the Center for the Improvement of Mentored Experiences in Research, which includes culturally aware mentoring.
“It is my hope that the benefits of this training will extend beyond BioGEM and enable faculty to be more effective mentors to mentees of all stages and backgrounds,” Cartwright said. “Strong mentor-mentee relationships will help us retain scholars from populations traditionally underrepresented in STEM and successfully prepare them for research careers.”
Photo: Students in a field botany course learn various plant identifications at the Prairie Acre site on KU’s Lawrence campus. A new training program based at the University of Kansas will expand the scientific workforce by preparing recent bachelor’s graduates to answer complex questions about the impacts of climate change on biodiversity. Credit: KU Marketing