College of Social Work Professor Sue Levkoff and Professor Alan White from the College of Arts and Sciences established the South Carolina - Advancing Diversity in Aging Research undergraduate program in 2015. Their goal was to address the lack of diversity among scientific experts by increasing underrepresented racial and ethnic minority students who pursue graduate studies and research careers in STEM - science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, as applied to aging. Six years later, the program continues to provide research opportunities to students who do not have the same resources as larger schools.
The SC-ADAR program consists of two, 10-week summer research training sessions for minority students at five of South Carolina’s historically Black Colleges and Universities (Allen, Benedict, Claflin, South Carolina State and Voorhees). Eleven students participated in the summer 2020 session, including six who returned for their second year. Since its inception, 30 students have participated in the program.
“The program reaches out to students majoring in biology and computer sciences and engineering to hopefully stimulate them to pursue research focusing on aging in their graduate studies and beyond,” Levkoff says. “This is consistent with one of the goals of my SmartState Endowed Chair - to stimulate interdisciplinary research that bridges technology and social gerontology, with a focus on developing services, products and environments that enhance the ability of older adults to age in place in their homes and community.”
Claflin University computer science majors Jasmine McKenzie, Alaina Smith and London Thompson were three of the participants who completed their second year of the program last summer. The COVID-19 pandemic prevented participants from in-person interactions with their research mentors and transitioned their presentations to virtual at the University of South Carolina’s annual Summer Research Symposium in July. But the obstacles did not prevent participants from still enjoying benefits.
“Since the program was in-person before (prior to COVID), participating virtually was challenging because I missed the in-person aspect and interacting daily with my cohort,” Smith says. “But I still got the most out of the program with opportunities to research, connect with mentors, and learn and interact with my cohort and the new one.”
Prior to applying, McKenzie had talked to a former SC-ADAR participant who highly recommended the program. She liked the goals and decided it would be a rewarding experience, even if she thought that research was not the right area for her.
“Even though I didn’t have any prior research experience, I developed a passion because it allows me to become the expert on a topic I’m studying,” McKenzie says. “It’s always new and exciting because it’s either a new concept or one you’re looking at from a new perspective. You also have to think of creative ways to approach your research questions, which makes it more fun.”
SC-ADAR is responsible McKenzie’s next educational endeavor. After graduating this spring, she will pursue a Ph.D. in human-centered computing at the University of Florida. McKenzie spoke to lab directors and several schools and each one was impressed with her application and research experience.
“The program also introduced me to the type of topics that interest me, which made finding a school, program and lab easier,” McKenzie says. “I’m prepared for future academic and career opportunities thanks to the program providing me with a solid foundation in research and life skills.”
Unlike some of her classmates, Smith had an interest in research and wanted to participate in the SC-ADAR program because it was highly recommended by her mentor. She also desired more experience in research by combining her interests of gerontology and computer sciences.
“I enjoyed everything from the networking to the research,” Smith says. “It was great seeing and being around other minority people of color and women in positions where I want to be in the future. It made me feel comfortable and gave me a sense of security.”
According to Thompson, SC-ADAR provided the opportunity to connect with a staff that served as a support system, backbone and foundation for his research.
“This was my first experience with scholarly research, and the SC-ADAR made it an amazing experience,” Thompson says. “Everyone on the staff contributed to my success by filling me with knowledge and motivating me. Apart from the staff, the connections I made with both student cohorts will be long-lasting, and I learned great qualities and habits from other students.”
He also credits his mentor, Csilla Farkas, professor and associate dean for diversity, engagement, and inclusion at the UofSC College of Engineering and Computing, with having a significant impact in helping him discover a passion for research.
“She gave me the best of both worlds,” Thompson says. “I always felt that I could talk to Dr. Farkas about anything, whether it was research or personal life. Doing research under her opened a door for me that I never knew existed before the program.”
Both Smith and Thompson will be joining McKenzie at the University of Florida. Smith will pursue a Ph.D. in human-centered computing, while Thompson will study for his Ph.D. in computer science.
“The SC-ADAR program prepared me and gave me a good glimpse of what a graduate program would require and expect of me,” Smith says. “I was in a lab with a mentor and had courses to broaden my knowledge, so I feel very prepared.”
“I’m extremely thankful for the time and effort that the SC-ADAR program has poured into me,” Thompson says. “The staff is only a call away, and I can’t say enough about how great of an experience participating in the program was for me.”
Karina Liles, Ph.D., assistant professor of computer science at Claflin University, is one of the SC-ADAR program faculty and HBCU mentor. She encouraged and identified students who she believed would thrive in the program. Liles was impressed by the high-level programming that her students received, including quality seminars and classes and innovative research.
“I have seen a greater interest in medical research among my computer science students,” Liles says. “Introducing them to medical research has helped prepare them for future academic programs where they can conduct interdisciplinary research of computer science and health care.”
But research was only one area where participants enhanced their knowledge and skills. College of Social Work doctoral candidate Amanda Stafford McRell was one of the program’s coordinator for pre-professional development. She was most impressed with the participants strong communication skills and how they explained their research through oral and written dissemination projects.
“Many of the students were working in STEM research labs on complex and important research,” Stafford McRell says. “As their writing course instructor, I read their essays and personal statements and learned a lot about STEM research. I was impressed at how their professional communication skills progressed and strengthened over time.”
Levkoff is impressed at how participants are appreciative of the opportunity, willing to learn, and how they take advantage of every aspect of the program.
“Seeing their drive and motivation is impressive,” Levkoff says. “It was remarkable last year seeing how the students handled doing everything virtually. We are so fortunate to have been funded by the National Institute on Aging to provide this research training. It gives students a big head start in pursuing and meeting the challenges of a high-level doctoral or master’s program.”