February 24, 2018  

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NIH Funding Helps Southern Miss Foster Biomedical Research

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Southern Miss graduate students, from left to right: Dhritiman Samanta, Ahmed Alzuway and Lacey Howard conduct biomedical research as part of a National Institutes of Health grant. (University Communications photo by Van Arnold)

An $18 million renewal of the Mississippi INBRE grant from the National Institutes of Health will enable The University of Southern Mississippi and partner institutions throughout the state to foster a vision in biomedical research that began a dozen years ago.

The funding comes from a national program developed by NIH called IDeA Networks of Biomedical Research Excellence (INBRE). INBRE grants are intended to enhance the caliber of scientific faculty at research institutions and undergraduate schools, thereby attracting more promising students to these organizations.

The recent renewal runs from 2013-2018 and brings the total amount of the grant – established in 2001 – to nearly $54 million. Dr. Glen Shearer and Dr. Mohamed Elasri, professors in the Department of Biological Sciences at Southern Miss, serve as principal investigators for the grant which has been in effect for 12 years.

“The goals we established when we first sought this grant are the same ones we follow today,” said Shearer. “Our objective has always been to change the lives of Mississippians through biomedical research, education and training. These INBRE grants allow us to establish critical research initiatives all across the state that will have a lasting impact on the health and well-being of all Mississippians.”

Southern Miss serves as the lead university in the Mississippi INBRE network which includes all five research-intensive institutions – Southern Miss, University of Mississippi, Mississippi State University, Jackson State University and University of Mississippi Medical Center. The network also includes six partner undergraduate institutions --  Alcorn State University, Millsaps College, Mississippi College, Mississippi University for Women, Mississippi Valley State University and Tougaloo College. Additionally, eight outreach institutions are involved, including most of the state’s junior colleges.

As Shearer points out, the NIH grants have allowed researchers/educators to focus on a broad range of biomedical-related areas such as cancer research, diabetes research, heart disease, teen pregnancy, obesity and sexually transmitted diseases. As the state with the greatest incidence of cardiovascular deaths in the nation (50th rank), 46th rank for cancer and 35th rank for infectious diseases – these areas are of great interest to Mississippi students and of vital importance to the state and its health disparities populations.

Elasri serves as the grant program’s coordinator. He is particularly proud to see biomedical research opportunities being made available to the undergraduate partner institutions. Elasri has been instrumental in setting up research protocols at these schools and assisting faculty on writing effective grant proposals.

“Just a few years ago this type of research was not being conducted at these schools and now we have faculty, students and the latest technology on site at all of them,” said Elasri. “One of the real keys to securing renewals of this grant from NIH has been to show that we are committed to the idea of expanding biomedical research throughout the state. We knew that there were already some well-established research institutions in Mississippi, but we needed to get all of the impressive brainpower across the state involved.”

The Mississippi INBRE grant helps support the work of hundreds of biomedical researchers and student trainees across the state. At Southern Miss, for example, the MS-INBRE helps to support the work of 21 faculty members, 40 graduate students and nearly 50 undergraduate students.

“IDeA Networks of Biomedical Research Excellence (INBRE) link educational and research institutions within a state to provide enriched opportunities for student, investigator and institutional development,” said IDeA program chief W. Fred Taylor, Ph.D., of the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of General Medical Sciences. “The University of Southern Mississippi INBRE exposes students to biomedical research and health-related career options and provides faculty members with the resources to build collaborations that extend regionally and nationally.”

Elasri and Shearer have also instituted a “Biomedical Bootcamp” for undergraduates seeking careers in related fields. This summer’s camp included between 20-30 students from across the state who spent one week on the Southern Miss campus in Hattiesburg.

“We try to jam as much into that time period as possible,” said Elasri. “We want to give them a firm understanding of the commitment required to work in biomedical research.”

Added Shearer: “This type of research requires great dedication and commitment – especially once you reach the graduate student level. It’s definitely not for everybody but the students we have involved here are among the brightest you will find anywhere.”

One of the keys to securing additional NIH funding for this massive project is to provide a credible roadmap for success over the five-year grant period. Among the objectives outlined by Mississippi INBRE are:

  • Establish five new biomedical research laboratories at the partner undergraduate institutions.
  • Strengthen the science curriculum at the undergraduate institutions by providing curriculum enhancement grants to provide faculty release time and essential equipment for developing new interdisciplinary courses.
  • Provide professional development opportunities to faculty at the undergraduate institutions by organizing proposal writing workshops, technical workshops and work groups that are tailored to undergraduate institutions.
  • Implement the Mississippi INBRE Research Scholars Program (11-week summer undergraduate research internships), by adding a career development training module.
  • Establish a Community Engagement and Training Core that will directly address health disparities and promote education and prevention in the areas of cancer, sexually transmitted diseases and obesity. Therein, develop an internship program that targets students who are interested in community outreach activities in rural and/or African-American populations.

To learn more about the Mississippi INBRE program, visit: http://www.msinbre.net/. For more information about the Department of Biological Sciences at Southern Miss, call 601.266.4748 or visit: http://www.msinbre.net/

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