Marked for Excellence MU awarded $2.3 million MARC grant based on history of underrepresented-student success

Flip through a brochure for practically any institution of higher learning and you’re sure to see a familiar photo: goggled student, pipette in one gloved hand, petri dish in the other, beaming amid Bunsen burners and beakers in a brightly lit laboratory.

The image is a “quick read,” meant to illustrate research opportunities at a big-time college. But at the University of Missouri, where hands-on undergraduate research is a way of life, it’s more than a marketing angle.

“Research at Mizzou has helped me learn how to persist through difficult times,” says Ashley Aguillard, BS ’18 (biochemistry) and a nutrition doctoral student at the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill. “There will be periods of time when the research is going quickly and smoothly and other times when things get slow and difficult. These moments are inevitable, and when they occur, you look back on what is driving you and remember the people you’re doing it for.”

Aguillard is one of 451 undergraduate students over the past 10 years to come through the Initiative for Maximizing Student Diversity (IMSD), a program designed to develop the research and professional skills of students from underrepresented groups. These include students from racial and ethnic minorities, students with disabilities, and students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Mark Hannink, professor of biochemistry, and Linda Blockus, director of the Office of Undergraduate Research, are the principal investigators of the program, and Brian Booton has led the initiative as the undergraduate director since 2008. More than 100 faculty members serve as mentors in research areas across Mizzou, helping IMSD undergrads conduct world-class research much sooner than most students at large research universities.

“Undergraduate researchers want to save the world, and there is nothing like those bright eyes and anxious hands wanting to make a difference,” says Charlotte Phillips, professor of biochemistry and child health. “Helping them to get started and get opportunities to answer real questions is important. More than half of my undergraduates have gone on to get their PhD or MD.”

Funded by the National Institute of Health (NIH), the program’s ultimate goal is to increase the number of underrepresented students pursuing careers in biomedical research.

“The overwhelming majority of first-year participants self-identify as pre-med, pre-pharm, pre-dental, et cetera — what we think of as pre-clinical or health care professionals — and those are wonderful goals,” says Booton.  “I always say, God knows we need to diversify the healthcare workforce. We don’t have a health care workforce that even closely mirrors our society. And yet we have even less of a biomedical research workforce that mirrors our society.

“Diversity leads to innovation, and that’s why programs like ours exist. I tell students, we’re not here to convert you. The program is here to expose you to research. To see if, perhaps, a career engaging in the science behind medicine is the way you’d like to utilize your curiosity in science.”

IMSD is a comprehensive program that integrates research and mentoring with academic and social support to help students excel. The first two years of the program include weekly meetings focused on academic, personal and professional development. Juniors and seniors progress to a different weekly seminar focused on taking ownership of one’s undergraduate research project along with graduate school preparation.

IMSD scholars also participate in national events such as the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students (ABRMCS) — all while conducting undergraduate research with the support of faculty mentors and their respective research teams. It’s a holistic approach that leads to stellar retention and graduation rates, and postgraduate success.

Due to a new NIH funding structure, which makes a distinction between funding awarded to research intensive institutions such as MU and non-research intensive environments, the program’s name has changed to Maximizing Access to Research Careers (MARC). Structurally, MU’s initiative remains the same. The first two years of programming will be supported by university funding, but NIH will make an even larger investment in juniors and seniors who are committed to pursuing a PhD.

“The IMSD program seeks to challenge the notion of who belongs in science and research,” says Booton, noting that inclusion and equity in STEM have long been topics in the national discourse. “We nurture the student’s genuine curiosity in STEM and provide exceptional programming in order broaden participation of students from underrepresented backgrounds. Our goal is to create an affirming, inclusive space where diverse talent thrives.”

Pictured above are IMSD students who participated in multiple national undergraduate conferences in addition to performing cutting-edge research on Mizzou’s campus. Front row (from left): Ashley Aguillard, Erica Braham and Alana Rodney. Back row: Alex Rodriguez, Paige Martinez, Chris Zachary, Joshua Jones, James Ball and Brian Booton. Pre-pandemic photo taken by Roger Meissen

By Marcus Wilkins

Please visit to read the original article and about the students who have excelled through the ISMD program.

Founded in 1978, the Council on Undergraduate Research (CUR) focuses on providing high-quality and collaborative undergraduate research, scholarly, and creative activity. Among the many activities and networking opportunities that CUR provides, the organization also offers support for the professional growth of faculty and administrators through expert-designed institutes, conferences, and a wide-range of volunteer positions. The CUR community, made up of nearly 700 institutions and 13,000 individuals, continues to provide a platform for discussion and other resources related to mentoring, connecting, and creating relationships centered around undergraduate research. CUR’s advocacy efforts are also a large portion of its work as they strive to strengthen support for undergraduate research. Its continued growth in connections with representatives, private foundations, government agencies, and campuses world-wide provides value to its members and gives voice to undergraduate research. CUR is committed to inclusivity and diversity in all of its activities and our community.

CUR focuses on giving a voice to undergraduate research with learning through doing. It provides connections to a multitude of campuses and government agencies, all while promoting networking and professional growth to its community.