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My Turn: Outside the ivy tower: Elite schools bring science opportunities to students across state

Criticizing institutes of higher education‚ especially elite ones, is a favorite pastime of politicians and pundits. Some of this criticism is thoughtful and challenges current practices, which admittedly, change direction with the nimbleness of an aircraft carrier. Some borders on the absurd: A recent screed by Bloomberg News’s Richard Vedder suggests large endowments of elite schools make for teachers who do nothing for fat salaries but “obscure research that no one uses or reads.”

Full disclosure: I am one of those teachers at an elite institution who does so-called obscure research (the impact of illicit steroid use on adolescents), but like the majority of my colleagues at Dartmouth College, I work 16-hour days and care deeply about educating students.

I recognize railing against the Vedder brand of silliness – for example, suggesting professors return to Adam Smith’s days of directly collecting money from students they teach – is tantamount to Jerry Jeff Walker’s song “Pissing In the Wind.” There is, however, validity in the concern that privilege perpetuates privilege, and elite universities often do a poor job at making public things they do to combat that trend.

Enter INBRE, a mouthful of an acronym for IDeA Networks of Biomedical Research Excellence. This goal of this National Institutes of Health initiative is to augment and strengthen biomedical research capacity of institutions within 23 states and Puerto Rico that are underrepresented in their share of federal funding. Some may argue this is an earmark – aka pork – but it is an earmark that does a tremendous amount of good beyond the towers of the ivy elite.

Here in New Hampshire, Dartmouth College (through the Geisel School of Medicine) and the University of New Hampshire partner with Colby-Sawyer College, Franklin Pierce University, Great Bay Community College, Keene State College, New England College, Plymouth State University, River Valley Community College and Saint Anselm College to enhance research opportunities, augment science and technology workforce training and build bioinformatics infrastructure (e.g., fiber optics networks) throughout the state.

The New Hampshire INBRE program does much more than just provide research mentoring for faculty at institutions that are not research- intensive. Annual meetings and summer programs open opportunities for students unaware that such choices existed. Traditionally, many first-generation students with an interest in the biological sciences, especially young women, are drawn to nursing. Through INBRE, nursing students at Colby- Sawyer, UNH and Saint Anselm have been afforded an opportunity to do research at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center and now recognize they can train to become research nurses, a career that has expanded professional advancement within nursing.

In fact, many students at smaller schools that do not have a full complement of research faculty are often unaware graduate school in the biomedical sciences is an option that does not entail student debt. INBRE has opened their eyes to the fact that the opportunities to earn PhDs in the biomedical sciences not only mean no loans for tuition, but also stipend support for living expenses.

Despite Vedder’s assertion that research is useless and esoteric, U.S.-trained biomedical scientists are essential for discoveries that advance health and cure disease. The talent pipeline matters: Consider David Ginty, one of the brightest and most innovative active scientists today. Currently a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator and neurobiology professor at Harvard University, he got his start not at Stanford or Hopkins, but at Mount Saint Mary’s University. There is no doubt that students who go to elite schools are extremely talented, but there are also myriad reasons why imminently talented ones don’t go to these schools, too. We need the Dave Gintys of the world. We need to make sure we provide mechanisms for all talented students to have the same opportunities to join the scientific workforce. The INBRE program does just that.

Moreover, for students involved in this program, this research experience opens doors not only to academia but also to a host of opportunities in biotech and big pharma; as scientific liaisons for investors and venture capitalists; scientific experts for law firms; development officers, science writers/illustrators; lobbyists; and even burgeoning fields at the interface of science and economics. These students learn how to ask a broad scientific question and critically assess information can be parlayed into successful careers across many disciplines.

Perhaps the most important opportunity afforded by this program is that smart, energetic people from schools across the state get to talk and think about science. The outcome of this conversation enriches us all at lead and partner institutions alike. In an era when taking swipes at elite schools is all too easy, we should also step up and recognize when schools like Dartmouth are committed to initiatives like INBRE that have such a substantial impact outside their ivied halls.

(Leslie Henderson is senior associate dean for faculty affairs and a professor of physiology and neurobiology at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth College. She is also a fellow of The OpEd Project.)

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