In 2021, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) awarded UMBC more than $1 million over five years to create a program specifically for undergraduate scholars interested in research on substance abuse and addiction. A year after the program’s launch, it is thriving as students in fields as diverse as economics, computer science, and chemical engineering find ways to connect their interests to this important topic.
“We need people from all walks of STEM to be able to approach problems to find solutions,” says Patrice Darby. She is program coordinator of special projects of the Meyerhoff Scholars Program and a co-lead on the grant, which is called Educating Diverse Undergraduates for Careers in Addiction and substance abuse research via Training Experiences (EDUCATE). The program supports a small, specialized group of Meyerhoff Scholars as EDUCATE Scholars. The grant is administered by UMBC’s College of Natural and Mathematical Sciences and led by the college’s dean, Bill LaCourse.
EDUCATE programming includes talks from researchers whose work touches addiction, as well as workshop series on science communication and on the tools needed to become a successful researcher. EDUCATE Scholars are also expected to participate in a sustained research experience with UMBC faculty mentors and to present their research at a conference. They also take an ethics course and receive intensive academic and career advising from program staff. Funding is available to support summer research experiences for EDUCATE Scholars as well.
“NIDA has really encouraged an interdisciplinary approach,” Darby says. That and the small size of each cohort means “we’re really able to tailor things to the students’ needs.”
Yetunde Oshagbemi ’23, economics and mathematics, wants to study economic development in Nigeria, and she is interested in understanding how drug abuse has impacted development. Based on Oshagbemi’s interests, Darby invited an economist with a focus on drug abuse to speak to the scholars. In addition to speaking directly to Oshagbemi’s interest, this offered a fresh perspective for students in other majors.
The talk “reminded me that similar interests can be applied in different ways,” Oshagbemi says. The EDUCATE program as a whole “broadens your horizons and your views on the ways drug abuse is being studied in different disciplines. It’s allowed me to see that there are different ways to answer the questions I have about my interests.”
Oshagbemi conducts research with Zoë McLaren, professor of public policy, whose work includes studying infectious disease in developing countries. Oshagbemi also appreciates Darby’s mentorship. Darby helps “make sure that not only am I progressing academically, but my mental health is also doing well,” she says. “She tries to give you the best advice based on the type of person you are and the path you want to go on.”
Mike Anoruo ’24, computer science, has also benefited from the mentorship and interdisciplinary nature of the program. Darby recommended he apply for a summer workshop at MIT on quantitative methods, which was eye-opening. “I learned a lot about biology and I was able to bring in my computer science knowledge,” Anoruo says.
Anoruo is inspired by his mother, who works at a crisis stabilization center for people who struggle with addiction and substance abuse. “Seeing her passion for it has made me really want to learn more about it,” he says. “From the MIT workshop, I was able to see that computer science has a lot of applications. So if I can find a way to make a difference the same way my mom is, I think I would really enjoy that.”
Knowing that there are so many ways to apply computer science, Anoruo is still considering his options for the future. “I really like being in the EDUCATE program because I get to look into different topics in drug addiction. I’m just trying to explore and see what I want to go into.”
A real contribution
Students who are not EDUCATE Scholars also benefit from the program.
Each year six students, a mix of Meyerhoff Scholars and STEM BUILD Trainees, have the opportunity to participate in research internships at NIDA through a supplement to the EDUCATE grant. STEM BUILD Trainee Precious Oyinloye ’23, chemical engineering, is completing a virtual internship this school year. Her project involves analyzing data to identify chemical compounds involved in addiction.
After learning how to code in the Python language as part of her NIDA experience, “I’m more curious about computer science,” she says. Plus, “being part of a research project offers a sense of fulfillment—I’m really contributing to science.”
Zoha Faraz ’22, psychology and biological sciences, also a STEM BUILD Trainee, used the opportunity to gain important research skills. “Through the internship, I was able to learn a lot about the research process, and I feel more confident in testing my research skills,” she says. “I think it also improved my scientific communication, because I had to make a presentation about my project.”
A personalized experience
The EDUCATE program is small, with a maximum of six scholars per year. That allows the staff “to give our students a highly personalized experience,” Darby says.
Between the workshop-style trainings, faculty-mentored research, and availability of committed staff like Darby to offer guidance and feedback, the program is setting the EDUCATE Scholars up for success in whatever field they choose to pursue.
“You don’t have to research addiction to be able to influence addiction research,” Darby says. Addiction is, however, one of the topics that brings the scholars together. At a social event for EDUCATE students earlier this year, that connection was on full display, helping students deepen relationships they may rely on for support for years to come.
“It’s just different to have a special community,” Darby says, “to talk about the impacts of addiction and why our students care.”