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NIH Awards UAF $23.8 Million For New Diversity Program in Biomedical Research

Fairbanks, AK - The University of Alaska Fairbanks has received a $23.8 million award from the National Institutes of Health for a new ‘Biomedical Learning and Student Training program,’ or BLAST. The new undergraduate program is part of a national effort by NIH to enhance diversity in the biomedical workforce.

In a teleconference, NIH Director Francis Collins said diversity in biomedical research is critical.

“There is an increasingly urgent need to ensure that the scientific talent key to our nation’s success is nurtured, recognized and supported across all demographic groups," said Collins.

As part of an effort to increase diversity in the biomedical workforce, NIH awarded five years’ worth of funding to three researchers from UAF. They’ll lead the new BLAST program to work with students from rural Alaska.

Barbara Taylor is the Director of Undergraduate Research and Scholarly Activity at UAF. She says there’s a lot of interest in biomedical research outside of Alaska’s urban centers.

“Because there are hospitals and clinics there and those are seen as desirable jobs and the local students would like to know how to train for and compete for those jobs," says Taylor.

"And on top of that, a lot of those communities still live pretty close to a subsistence lifestyle,” says Arleigh Reynolds. He’s the Associate Dean of UAF’s Department of Veterinary Medicine, along with Taylor, he’s also a Principal Investigator for BLAST.

“This program is designated a one health program which means we’re trying to integrate human health, animal health and environmental health into one package," Reynolds, explains. "With things changing as they are in Alaska from a climate point of view and economic point of view, it would be great to have people from those communities trained in biomedical sciences so they can also be advisors back to the communities from where they came from on pretty important issues as they change,” he says.

There are roughly twenty labs on UAF’s campus that do some sort of biomedical research.  Already Barbara Taylor says there are a number of Alaska Native and minority students working in those labs.  She says the NIH funding will enhance their research.  It will also pay for infrastructure, scholarships, hands-on workshops and travel opportunities for students and faculty.

“We need a tiered mentoring network, so we have to involve graduate students and technicians and post-docs and faculty members," says Barbara Taylor. We have to make it possible for them to be working on projects that are amenable to undergraduate participation,” she says.

The new program at UAF is similar to ten others funded by NIH nationwide. UAF will partner with Ilisagvik College in Barrow, the University of Alaska Southeast and nine of UAF’s rural campuses.