US: More student lab time as programme extended

The University of California, Berkeley, has received a four-year, $1 million grant to extend a programme that gives undergraduate students from across the country more hands-on laboratory experience.

The Amgen Scholars Program, launched in 2006, aims to make careers in biomedical research more accessible to undergraduates by placing them in laboratories at some of the nation's top universities.

UC Berkeley is one of 10 universities in the United States, including Columbia and Stanford, chosen to host students for the intensive summer programme. Collectively, these universities, along with three in Europe, have hosted nearly 1,200 students, 21 of them now graduate students at UC Berkeley.

"The programme has been an outstanding success," Mark Schlissel (pictured), dean of biological sciences at UC Berkeley and professor of molecular and cell biology, told University World News. "Overall, the programme has been highly successful in providing a springboard into research and professional careers for all the Amgen students."

For budding scientists, laboratory experience is essential when applying to graduate school. But many universities and colleges lack either the appropriate laboratory facilities or the curriculum that would give students the practical experience they need to study - and find successful careers in - disciplines such as biochemistry, immunology and toxicology.

That discrepancy has dashed the hopes of thousands of potential scientists. But the Amgen programme goes some way in filling this gap.

The programme, sponsored by the Amgen Foundation, which supports the advance of science education, gives undergraduate students a chance to engage in the kind of laboratory research required by the increasingly technical fields of neuroscience or bioengineering, to take just two examples.

For the last four years, UC Berkeley has hosted 94 students from universities across the country. Thirty-nine of these students are now enrolled in graduate school, seven are enrolled in MD or MS professional programmes and 10 have found jobs in research.

Amgen also seeks to bring more diversity to the science workplace by encouraging minority students to apply, said Schlissel. Despite various government efforts, there is still a serious lack of minority groups entering careers in science. In 2006, only 9% of the science and engineering workforce was from minority groups, according to a 2010 report by the National Academy of Sciences.

The Amgen application process is rigorous, and competition is fierce. Each year UC Berkeley receives around 650 applicants, of whom only about 23 are chosen.

The summer session involves mentored research in the laboratory of a UC Berkeley faculty member over a 10-week period, from May to August. Each Amgen scholar is paired up with a current graduate student or postdoctoral fellow to help with the scholar's current research project.

"There was a lot of support," Adam Session, a former Amgen scholar and now a graduate student in the department of molecular and cell biology at UC Berkeley, said in a press release. "You got to see what graduate students do and find out what it's like to work full-time in a lab."

Faculty meet regularly with the students too, providing advice and general mentoring. Scholars also attend weekly events, such as seminars, field trips to other universities and biotech companies, and workshops on applying to graduate school. At the end of the summer session, each student gives a talk describing his or her project and its results.

"The programme showed me you've got to work hard, and it's going to be more than a 40-hour week," Session said. "It's tough, but it showed me that I could do it, and that it was something I would want to do."

The renewal grant is the second phase of Amgen's efforts to help young scientists, and it brings total funding for the programme to $34 million over eight years.