Program aims to level the playing field for minority students in science

The Young Innovative Investigator Program (YIIP) aims to bridge the gap for underrepresented minorities seeking graduate-level education in science and medicine, said Dr. Linda Barry, Surgeon at UConn Health Center, Assistant Professor of Surgery at UConn School of Medicine and Director of YIIP. (Zhelun Lang/Daily Campus)

Minority students studying medical science in college can now apply for an exclusive graduate program that will award funding and allow them to gain critical research and professional experience to advance their careers.

In 2011, Science magazine published a study from the National Institute of Health (NIH) that revealed a severe deficit in funding offered minority students in the field of science compared with their white counterparts and which would ultimately change the future for underrepresented minorities studying medical science.

That study planted the seeds for the Young Innovative Investigator Program (YIIP), which aims to bridge the gap for underrepresented minorities seeking graduate-level education in science and medicine, Dr. Linda Barry, Surgeon at UConn Health Center, Assistant Professor of Surgery at UConn School of Medicine and Director of YIIP, said.

As I climbed the ladder, there was less and less color and less and less women. There was nobody that looked like me, no black surgeons.
— Dr. Linda Barry, director of YIIP

The study found that if education and quality of undergraduate institution were the same, minorities still were not getting funding. “Black scientists were 10 percent less likely to get a grant,” Barry said. Considering how hard it is to be accepted into graduate programs such as Ph.D.s and Medical school, grants are essential to continuing research.

“You have to have so many ducks lined up to get into a Ph.D., you’ve got to know the right people,” she said.

Barry questioned why there are almost no black female surgeons.

“By the grace of God I became a surgeon,” she said. “As I climbed the ladder, there was less and less color and less and less women. There was nobody that looked like me, no black surgeons.”

The program, co-created by Dr. Cato Laurencin, CEO and Director the Connecticut Institute for Clinical and Translational Science, was meant to address such disparity in the science field, said Barry.

“It’s even worse when you’re the only one but you’re still invisible and others around you are recognized for leadership,” she said. “The reason YIIP came into being was another way to address that.”

Though the program provides a unique opportunity, it is no easier to get into than a typical master’s degree program, with the exception that there are virtually no seats reserved for white students. Among scientists, only African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, Alaskan Natives and Pacific Islanders qualify as underrepresented minorities, said the YIIP website, although Asians were four percent less likely than white scientists to receive funding in the same NIH study.

“It’s not a post-bacc program,” Trisha Kwarko, M.S. in biomedical science candidate at the UConn Health Center, said of YIIP. “This is research-intensive. You have to really do a self-assessment to know you’re genuinely interested and know what research is about,” she said.

Kwarko was one of just three UConn undergraduates who made the cut, Barry said.

“I was interested from high school in geriatrics medicine,” Kwarko said. “I didn’t get a chance to do basic science research as an undergrad. I wanted to know how we put all that knowledge from classes to transfer into the lab.”

The program emphasizes mentorship, research and lab work with the goal being to prepare students for a Ph.D., Ph.D./MD or MD program, and provides professional resources not typically offered undergraduate scientists.

Presenting research, networking and writing a resume are things Dr. Barry had to figure out on her own, she said, and she wants to create a model for students like her.

“I don’t think there is a program that has all the components we managed to put together with limited resources,” she said.

Though the program accepts students every second year, Barry said she hopes to change it to every year in the future by increasing their on-campus presence.

“We don’t have a close relationship with undergrads on campus because of geography but they need mentorship,” she said.

Dr. Barry welcomes all students in the audience, even those who are not minorities, she said, because that means they want to grow more.

With a class of six students currently conducting masters level research in topics ranging from cancer prevention to dental medicine, Kwarko and her colleagues have received national recognition.

“There’s been a lot of awards,” Kwarko, who presented her research at a national meeting in Seattle last October, said. “My abstract was selected for a poster presentation for the American Society of Bone and Marrow Research.”

“I can give you an hour and a half lecture on how to give a presentation, but you’ve got to get out and do it,” said Barry. “Even meeting leaders in your field can lead to a future job. 

Dr. Barry received her B.A. from Yale and her MD from Cornell, but she is working to improve education for minority students at UConn, she said.

“I would love UConn to be the hotbed of science production.”


Amanda Campanaro is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at amanda.campanaro@uconn.edu.