Supporting undergraduates to excel in aging research
NIA-funded Advancing Diversity in Aging Research program supports undergraduates in pursuing aging research careers
Although many students begin college with a passion for science and medicine, some face financial and other obstacles that can diminish or even extinguish that spark. Because providing hands-on research experiences to students can have a large impact, NIA encourages students to pursue research careers through its Advancing Diversity in Aging Research (ADAR) Through Undergraduate Education programs. Students are eligible to apply for NIA ADAR-funded programs if they are from economically, socially, culturally, or educationally disadvantaged backgrounds. Applicants include students from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups and those who have vision, hearing, or other disabilities.
“Since its inception nearly 10 years ago, ADAR has provided more than 300 college students with coursework, lab instruction, and mentoring in aging-related research,” said NIA Deputy Director Marie A. Bernard, M.D., who also currently serves as the acting NIH Chief Officer of Scientific Workforce Diversity. “A recent analysis showed that nearly one-third of these trainees later entered medical school or graduate programs, and we expect many more ADAR scholars to follow suit.”
At academic and other research institutions around the country, NIA-supported ADAR programs invest in training bright and passionate students from diverse backgrounds. These programs are expanding the number of researchers interested in aging and geriatrics, and they are contributing to a more diverse workforce that is committed to finding ways to address health disparities, prevent and treat Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias, and promote healthy aging overall. As a testament to successes so far, ADAR-funded students have published 85 scholarly papers in biomedical journals and delivered more than 115 scientific presentations.
Offering opportunities for high-tech research training
Each NIA ADAR-supported institution offers a uniquely designed program. For example, the New York University ADAR-funded program features training in the application of quantitative methods including biostatistics to aging research, while the University of the District of Columbia focuses on research related to improving balance and preventing falls among older adults. At Washington State University, ADAR-supported research opportunities center on developing technologies for healthy aging. Unlike other ADAR programs, its Gerontechnology-Focused Summer Undergraduate Research Experience (GSUR) program requires trainees to have a background in computer science and programming languages.
Parveer Kaur, who was selected as a GSUR research fellow to work in a neuropsychology lab during the summer of 2019, helped to develop the Digital Memory Notebook. This user-friendly tablet application is an organizational tool and memory aid with a calendar and journal. It is designed to enable older adults who have thinking and memory challenges to take care of themselves for longer without requiring a caregiver.
Kaur shadowed clinicians as they trained 19 older adults aged 65 to 81 to use the Digital Memory Notebook. She used statistical programs to compare the research participants to determine why certain adults were more likely to adopt the app and gain high mastery. Her analysis enabled the Washington State University research team to target older adults who are most likely to benefit from the Digital Memory Notebook, as well as continue to improve the app.
Kaur presented the scientific poster “Predicting Uptake of the Digital Memory Notebook Based on Competency” at NIA’s 2019 ADAR Summit meeting. Her presentation reported the finding that older adults who were placed in the low mastery group by clinicians did not use the Digital Memory Notebook to assist everyday functioning as much as those in the high mastery group. Her analysis also revealed that the low mastery group had poor memory abilities and lacked awareness that tasks were difficult for them compared to those in the high mastery group.
“The GSUR program has definitely increased my confidence in terms of examining relationships through statistical analysis. Previously, I did not have much experience with data analysis and was one who tended to shy away from numbers,” she said.
Since the GSUR experience, Kaur has coauthored four manuscripts for biomedical research journals, and her first peer-reviewed paper has already been published in the American Journal of Roentgenology.
In May 2020, Kaur earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in neuroscience and behavior with departmental honors from Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, and is now at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, completing the curriculum for the Bachelor of Engineering degree with a focus in biomedical engineering. She plans to work one or two years after completing college in May 2021 and then apply to medical school. Her long-term career goals include becoming an academic physician so that she can teach and continue doing research.
“I was so grateful to participate in the research experience at Washington State University because I realized that I enjoy working with the aging population, especially when I got to shadow the clinicians,” said Kaur. “Geriatrics is a field that I’m interested in long-term.”
Providing lasting mentoring and inspiration
Connecting students with strong mentors is another crucial aspect of NIA ADAR-supported programs. In addition to research career training, mentors can provide undergraduate students with knowledge, guidance, resources, and other support to help them remain on track after college.
Before Udell Holmes III earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in psychology with honors from Cleveland State University in 2020, he participated in Columbia University’s Summer of Translational Aging Research for Undergraduates (STAR U) ADAR-funded program, which provides research training and other mentoring. Since the training, Columbia’s STAR U mentors have kept in contact with Holmes to offer mentoring and support.
“I learned so much over that summer,” said Holmes. “It was a little family. It also showed me the beauty of a really diverse research lab that is at an extremely prestigious university medical center — so much culture, intellectualism, and diversity all blended together. I love that. It made me want to be a part of that.”
Holmes conducted an independent research project studying the default mode network, which is a group of areas in the brain that is active when an individual is not focused on the outside world. Neuroscientists study it with imaging methods such as brain MRI. Holmes said that this chance to get his hands on neuroimaging data while still an undergraduate was the opportunity of a lifetime.
His project was to determine whether the default mode network can be developed as a biomarker for detecting subjective cognitive decline. Subjective decline is when an individual perceives their memory or thinking skills are worse than for other people their age, but standard diagnostic tests do not detect the change. Researchers have wondered whether it may be a stage before cognitive decline progresses to dementia. If the default mode network has the potential to be a biomarker, then it could be developed into an objective test of early cognitive decline.
At the end of the summer program, Holmes presented his findings at the 2019 STAR U research symposium at Columbia and then again at the International Neuropsychology Society Conference in Denver. His study of 22 healthy older adults suggested that the front region of the default mode network might be correlated with subjective cognitive decline. With such a small sample, however, his results were not statistically significant. But he explained that further studies using a larger sample of adults and also targeting a more precise region within the default mode network might show a stronger connection between subjective cognitive decline and reduced activity in the network.
Because of his experience at STAR U, Holmes said that he has the courage to apply to Ph.D. programs in neuropsychology or clinical psychology. He will now be looking for an aging-centric program or to somehow incorporate aging research into his program.
“I really want to do research, and I also want to be a practitioner as well, working with either hospitals or university hospitals to help patients,” said Holmes. “I know I can do it; I know I am capable; I have been tested, and I feel like I passed.”
Finding solutions for health disparities through research
The NIA ADAR-funded program at The University of Chicago — Cultivating Health & Aging Researchers by Integrating Science, Medicine, & Aging (CHARISMA) — offers students the opportunity to shadow physicians and to be part of a team with clinicians and Pritzker School of Medicine medical students who are studying hospitalized older adults. Fellows can take advantage of the program offerings for one to three years.
Autumn Moore, an undergraduate student at the university, was selected to begin the CHARISMA program in 2020. Her CHARISMA mentored research team is collecting and analyzing data to study anemia in older adults, and they will present their findings in May 2021.
“I’ve learned so much about caring for the older adult population,” Moore said about her shadowing experiences at the hospital. “It is and will continue to be such a huge population that we will need additional resources for.”
Moore explained that she would like to work with and for populations that are medically underserved, economically disadvantaged, and/or educationally disadvantaged. She hopes her career will enable her to lead communities in reducing health disparities.
She said that she is particularly interested in conducting clinical research on chronic diseases that predominantly affect vulnerable communities, such as end-stage kidney disease and sickle cell disease. Both diseases affect Black Americans in particular. The prevalence of end-stage kidney disease in Black Americans is about four times greater than in white Americans. Similarly, most people who have sickle cell disease are of African ancestry or identify themselves as Black, and about one of every 365 Black American children is born with sickle cell disease.
“I want to be involved in research on pain management techniques to help people relieve their pain,” said Moore. “I’ve been able to interact with a lot of people who experience chronic pain from whatever condition or disease they have, and what I’ve realized is that although everyone experiences pain, each individual experiences pain very differently.”
Moore expects to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree in biological sciences in May 2021, and she will begin medical school after that.
Paving the way toward research funding
At the University of California (UC) Davis, Jose Sandoval became aware of research opportunities early on. As the first member of his family to attend college, he found a community and sense of belonging by being selected to competitive UC Davis opportunities — the Biology Undergraduate Scholars Program and later the NIA ADAR-funded program.
“I credit these programs with much of my success because they helped reassure me, they helped motivate me, and they gave me the tools that I used to succeed in college and hopefully medical and Ph.D. programs,” said Sandoval.
After being accepted into the NIA ADAR-supported program, Sandoval went to work with Gino Cortopassi, Ph.D., professor of molecular biosciences. His lab studies the mechanisms of aging, as well as defects in mitochondria, the energy factory of the cell. Cortopassi’s research team also tests small molecule drugs that may treat those defects.
“I mainly studied the mTOR protein. This protein is heavily targeted in both aging and in cancer,” said Sandoval. “I worked on a couple of experiments to identify novel inhibitors. And I tested the efficacy and potency of this inhibitor in different models, most notably in glioblastoma multiforme.”
Before graduating, Sandoval proposed to Cortopassi that they apply for an NIA grant to study the effects of APOE ε4, the most common genetic risk factor for Alzheimer’s. Cortopassi agreed, and they applied for a grant to study the mitochondrial effect of the APOE genotype in different models of Alzheimer’s. The application was successfully awarded an NIA Diversity Supplement to NIH/NIA grant P01AG062817-02. The supplement program supports the development of eligible research trainees who desire an independent career in aging and geriatrics research and also meet NIA's goal to enhance diversity in the biomedical workforce.
In June 2020, Sandoval graduated with honors with a Bachelor of Science degree in neurobiology, physiology, and behavior. Since earning his degree, he has been working full time in Cortopassi’s lab. Because of the NIA Diversity Supplement, Sandoval is now testing small molecule drugs to investigate how to reverse the effects of the APOE ε4 genotype in Alzheimer’s. The Cortopassi research team has already published a paper in the journal Pharmaceuticals with Sandoval as first author.
“My research interests are cellular metabolism and metabolic disease,” said Sandoval. “I hope to care for underserved communities that are disproportionately affected by metabolic disease, as well as studying that in the laboratory.”
Many studies have suggested a link between metabolic diseases, such as diabetes, and Alzheimer’s. The prevalence of diabetes is higher among Hispanic/Latino, American Indian/Alaska Native, and Black individuals than among white Americans.
“I’ve been studying Alzheimer’s,” said Sandoval. “I’ve also been studying cancer — both through a metabolic perspective. I’m really fascinated by the physiology of it — by how the cell utilizes the energy and how that contributes to the pathologic mechanisms of the disease.”
Sandoval said he cannot think of anything better than a career that enables him to pursue his scientific interests while also serving patients and his community. He applied to several M.D./Ph.D. programs so that his career can involve both medicine and research, and he will soon select where to continue his education.
ADAR is just one example of NIA’s investments in growing and diversifying the cadre of scientists interested in aging research, including research aimed at reducing health disparities. NIA’s Office of Special Populations (OSP) also supports other initiatives that strengthen the research and training opportunities available to students and scientists from underrepresented groups and that stimulate health disparities research related to aging.
“Investing in students from underrepresented minority communities is a priority for NIA because they may offer unique insights about factors that may affect health outcomes within a population,” explained Patricia Jones, DrPH, MPH, MS, director of the Office of Special Populations.
NIA offers the Health Disparities Research Framework as a resource for researchers, including ADAR-supported students, to help them think critically about variables to include in a study, including the behavioral, sociocultural, environmental, and biological factors that may influence health outcomes.
NIA also offers the annual Butler-Williams Scholars Program through the Office of Special Populations. Butler-Williams is aimed at early career scientists who want to further develop their expertise in aging research and better understand how certain older adults may be at risk for health disparities.
“Ideally, students who participate in the ADAR program would stay engaged in aging research over time and move along the pathway toward a program like the Butler-Williams Scholars Program,” said Jones.
More information about the Office of Special Populations and its programs is available at www.nia.nih.gov/research/osp/about-osp.
“NIA is committed to enhancing the diversity of the aging-related research workforce, promoting health equity, and reducing health disparities,” said Bernard. “By increasing the number of students from underrepresented groups who complete scientific degrees and by growing the base of aging-related researchers, we believe we can make a difference in improving the health of all Americans."