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Diversifying the Lab

USC Dornsife’s Steven Finkel seeks to strengthen the number of underrepresented minorities in STEM fields through the USC Center of Excellence in Genomic Science.

USC Dornsife’s Steven Finkel works in his laboratory with biological sciences senior Christopher Geiger. Photo by Matt Meindl.
USC Dornsife’s Steven Finkel works in his laboratory with biological sciences senior Christopher Geiger. Photo by Matt Meindl.

For more than a decade, USC Dornsife’s Steven Finkel has been working to diversify the field of biological sciences.

“It’s not a secret, academic research departments don’t look like America,” said Finkel, associate professor of biological sciences and deputy director of the USC Center of Excellence in Genomic Science.

Exposure is key, Finkel said. “Our solution is to help bring these students into basic research environments and expose them to something they most likely have not been exposed to.”

Joining USC Dornsife in 2000, Finkel was instrumental in securing more than $34 million in grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to create the center, one of nine in the nation with such funding. The grant mandates that centers must offer programs for African American, Latino American, Native American, Alaskan native and Pacific Islander students to improve the pipeline of underrepresented minorities in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) fields.

To date, 135 USC undergraduate and graduate students have participated in biomedical research programs. Based on surveys of student participants, about half go to medical school, a quarter pursues Ph.Ds. and another quarter pursues master’s degrees and work in the industry.

Current and former students consider Finkel a mentor.

“He was really an asset to my experience at USC because he gave us ways to talk about science with people who have similar goals in life,” said Elizabeth Adable, who earned her bachelor of science from Keck School of Medicine of USC.

Adable participated in the undergraduate research program for two years. “It’s an amazing program, and I love the fact that it’s really encouraging people of color to pursue careers in STEM, which is something that isn’t really highlighted in the community,” she said.

Beginning her USC studies as a premed student, Adable changed her career goals after getting hands-on lab experience doing DNA extraction and verification. She’s currently teaching high school biology as part of Teach for America while pursuing a master’s degree in education at Loyola Marymount University.

The program had a similar effect on Yadira Villalvazo, who recently earned her master of science from Keck School of Medicine of USC. After doing lab work to study the effect of aging by experimenting with fruit flies, she took a graduate biology course to learn more.

“I was really pleasantly surprised at just how much being a part of the genomics program for undergraduates directed me in certain ways and influenced my future plans,” said Villalvazo, who is now employed as a lab assistant in the same lab she worked in as a student.

The program not only provides lab experience, but also provides employment. Students receive stipends to work in the labs of their choice for 12-14 hours per week during the school year and 35 hours per week in the summer. The money does make a difference. “The idea is to pay them enough hourly to show them that this is important,” Finkel said.

Finkel said participants are typically premed students. He encourages them to try new paths by exploring science and research. He too was on the premed track as an undergraduate at the University of California, Berkeley until a professor took him under his wing and hired him to work in a lab. That experience led him to change his major to molecular biology.

“That’s what it’s been about for the last decade, trying to get talented students into a research environment so they can at least begin to consider doing something different,” said Finkel, a geneticist researching mechanisms of long-term survival and the evolution of bacteria. “For instance, they may want to become a scientist instead of a physician, or a physician-scientist instead of just a physician.”