Primed for Environmental Health Science

Mailman School Program Encourages Minorities to Enter the Field

September 8, 2015

This summer, eight undergraduates from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice were given a rare early opportunity to learn what it’s like to do hands-on research in environmental health sciences. The students spent 10 weeks at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health through the newly created Program to Inspire Minority Undergraduates in Environmental Health Science Research, or PrIMER, which joins similar Mailman programs in biostatistics and global health aimed at recruiting minorities to STEM fields.

“Generally speaking, I don’t think many undergraduates know what environmental health science means,” said Joseph Graziano, professor of Environmental Health Sciences and the principal investigator of a National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences grant funding the program. “This was a great opportunity to give them an introduction to the field. The more undergraduate training we have, the more outstanding graduate applications we’re going to have.”

Undergraduates in PrIMER spend two years carrying out research alongside faculty members in Environmental Health Sciences or doing related research, with the option of continuing their research throughout the school year. Students also receive mentoring and support for GRE preparation with the ultimate goal to encourage them to apply to graduate programs and pursue careers in environmental health sciences.

This year, three juniors and five seniors from John Jay worked alongside Mailman faculty in the lab. Among other tasks, they analyzed fluids exhaled during breathing, assessed the effectiveness of cancer treatments at the cellular level, and performed data analysis using statistical software.

Hadler da Silva studied the effect of allergens on asthma in Associate Professor Matthew Perzanowski’s lab. As a junior on a criminology track, he wasn’t planning on doing research while earning his degree. PrIMER changed his mind. “I got in this program and realized I might want to open my eyes to other types of science.”

Throughout the summer, Crystal Kennedy, a senior in the molecular biology track, gained confidence as a scientist. “I don’t need to be scared to go into a master’s program,” said Kennedy. Working on a pollution study with Assistant Professor Darby Jack showed her a path that she had once written off. “After this summer I realized if that’s what I want to go and do, I can do it, and I’d be great at it,” she said.

Greg Freyer, associate professor of Environmental Health Sciences, and Nina Kulacki, associate director of education programs for the department, direct PrIMER, in collaboration with Lissette Delgado-Cruzata, a professor at John Jay. Delgado-Cruzata, who earned a PhD from Mailman’s Environmental Health Sciences Department in 2007, says PrIMER’s secret ingredient is science. “This program is exciting,” said Delgado-Cruzata, “because it gives undergraduates a rare opportunity to engage with research.”

Joseph Graziano too is familiar with the benefits of early hands-on experience in a lab.  “Many years ago I had the opportunity through a very similar program to spend 10 weeks in a laboratory at Rutgers,” Graziano said. “I wanted to be a high school teacher. That program was a turning point for me in applying to graduate school. I wouldn’t be surprised if because of PrIMER some our students applied to the Environmental Health Sciences program here.”