Johns Hopkins collaborates with Morgan, Coppin to promote STEM diversity

ASPIRE program, supported by $2.46M grant from NIH, provides professional development opportunities for engineering, medicine, and biology PhDs

With $2.46 million in support from the National Institutes of Health, Johns Hopkins University is teaming up with two historically black Baltimore institutions, Morgan State and Coppin State universities, to cultivate a diverse group of highly trained biomedical researchers.

The three universities are establishing Academic Success via Postdoctoral Independence in Research and Education, or ASPIRE, an intensive training program that bridges engineering, medicine, and biology for translational research that addresses challenges related to human health. The goal is to provide new professional development opportunities for postdoctoral scholars.

"Our goal is to train the next generation of biomedical scientists and engineers, providing them with the knowledge and skills necessary to successfully pursue academic careers in research and teaching."
Leslie Tung
Director, ASPIRE

Johns Hopkins is one of 23 schools nationwide to receive funding from NIH's Institutional Research and Academic Career Development Awards program, which promotes collaborations between research-intensive institutions like Johns Hopkins and partner universities that demonstrate a commitment to training underrepresented groups.

"The ASPIRE program represents an exciting partnership between Johns Hopkins, Morgan State, and Coppin State," said Leslie Tung, professor of biomedical engineering at Johns Hopkins and director of ASPIRE. "Our goal is to train the next generation of biomedical scientists and engineers, providing them with the knowledge and skills necessary to successfully pursue academic careers in research and teaching. By the end of their experience, ASPIRE scholars will be prepared to address the world's most pressing health concerns through biomedical discovery, innovation, and education."

Jobs in STEM fields such as biomedical engineering are projected to increase by 23 percent over the next 10 years, but minority representation remains low. As of 2011, members of underrepresented minority groups earned just 12 percent of all degrees in science, technology, engineering, and math, and made up less than 5 percent of tenure-track faculty pursuing research in these areas. NIH created the IRACDA program in 1999 to try to close this gap in the biomedical research workforce. A 2016 study found that 73 percent of IRACDA program participants go on to establish careers in academic research or teaching.

Through ASPIRE, participants will conduct research under the guidance of Johns Hopkins faculty mentors and develop academic skills through pedagogy workshops, course development opportunities, and teaching experiences under faculty members at Morgan State and Coppin State. The program will support two new postdoctoral scholars annually over the next five years, providing each trainee with a stipend and funds for research supplies, conference travel, and other educational expenses.

During their three years in the ASPIRE program, scholars will spend 75 percent of their time conducting biomedical research and the remaining 25 percent learning about teaching and working in the classroom. Research projects will focus on diverse topics in biomedical engineering, applying quantitative methods and technical innovations to the diagnosis and treatment of disease for the advancement of human health. To promote interdisciplinary training, each scholar will have a primary research mentor from Johns Hopkins' Whiting School of Engineering, as well as a clinical collaborator from the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.

Tung said he is confident that ASPIRE will foster future collaboration among the three partner schools and increase the number of underrepresented minority undergraduates in STEM fields who go on to become professional scientists. ASPIRE scholars will be encouraged to mentor students from Morgan State and Coppin State on research projects within laboratories at Johns Hopkins, motivating new and diverse populations to pursue careers in science and engineering, he says.

"Currently, we're seeing a significant lack of diversity in biology, medicine, and engineering, especially as you progress along the academic career trajectory, from college to graduate school to faculty," Tung said. "That's what we're trying to change. Through these mentorship and training opportunities, ASPIRE will provide encouragement to underrepresented student groups and inspire them to pursue careers in biomedical research and engineering."

The first fellowships will be available in January. The program is currently accepting applicants. Candidates must have received a PhD or other qualifying degree within the past two years, be a U.S. citizen or permanent resident, and have an interest in educating underrepresented minorities.

Lisa Brown, associate professor and associate chair of the Department of Biology at Morgan State University, and Hany Sobhi, associate professor in the Department of Natural Sciences at Coppin State University, serve as program co-directors. Members of the ASPIRE management committee include Sridevi Sarma from Johns Hopkins, J. Kemi Ladeji-Osias and Christine Hohmann from Morgan State, and Mintesinot Jiru from Coppin.