“I felt so far behind,” says 21-year-old Deedee Romo about her chances of getting into graduate school.

Now, this first generation Mexican-American is on her way to a very impressive med school application thanks to the Colorado Undergraduate Research in Environmental Health Sciences (CUrehs) program.

The brainchild of CU Skaggs School of Pharmacy associate professor Jared Brown, PhD, and co-directed by John Repine, MD, and David Schwartz, MD, the program helps underserved undergraduate students interested in pursuing professional degrees in environmental health get the training they need prior to the application process. Underrepresented individuals in health sciences is defined as African- Americans, Hispanic Americans, Native Americans, Alaska Natives, Hawaiian Natives, U.S. Pacific Island Natives, Individuals with disabilities including physical or mental impairments, individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds including financial, social, or cultural or students who are first time college attendees in their family. Funded for five years by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), the program assists six students each year.

Navigating the system

First time applicants with no research experience or familiarity with graduate schools are at a disadvantage when applying to professional programs. An applicant following in the footsteps of a parent who is already a physician or PhD has an advantage. They know the system. They know how to navigate it. For Deedee, the system seemed overwhelming. “I was very concerned that I would not be able to compete. With a goal of becoming a physician, the pathway to successfully applying to med school was confusing.”

But after being accepted into the CUrehs program, she’s one step ahead of the competition. Deedee, together with five other CU Denver undergraduate students, is getting the training she needs to set herself apart.

“Most of these students have to work during undergrad. They don’t have the luxury of foregoing a job or taking a non-paid internship to get experience,” says Brown. They are already pursuing Bachelor of Science degrees with future dreams of being physicians or research scientists. “They just don’t know how to make the leap from outstanding undergrad student to exceptional graduate student candidate.”

Combining practical skills with mentorship

CUrehs helps them do that by combining practical skills like developing an effective application, writing a CV, networking and meeting working scientists with on the job training in a research laboratory where they are paired with a mentor based on their research interests. The students develop a research project, analyze the data, provide a final report and professionally present their findings to fellow scientists. All while getting paid. “This is more than a summer job doing lab maintenance, cleaning pipettes and glassware. We really wanted to provide a valuable experience and give them a leg up while developing an interest in environmental health careers,” says Brown.

The difference between this and other programs is that the CUrehs program requires a one to two year commitment from the student. Most programs are two months in length and occur during summer break. CUrehs provides a paid summer research program of eight weeks and a year round research opportunity up to 10 hours per week. The program is focused on training students in the environmental health sciences. This includes research opportunities in biomonitoring of environmental exposures, genetics of environmental lung diseases, nanotechnology health and safety, environmental causes of cancer, effects of chemical warfare agents and inhaled pollutants.

Deedee agrees. “It has been an amazing experience. It’s more than I imagined.”

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