<p>Every year thousands of biology students from underrepresented groups gather to present summer research, to network and to gain career advice. Last month in St. Louis, two Brown undergraduates emerged with awards and a surge of inspiration.</p>

Here’s the counterintuitive thing about the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students in St. Louis, where last month a handful of Brown students got the chance to network and talk about their summer research with about 2,000 of their peers: At exactly the same time that racial disparity was the explicit context, it was often much less apparent than usual.

“I was very well aware that I was in a conference where there was a breadth of minority students,” said Patricia Mae Santos, a junior pre-med student concentrating in neuroscience. “The Caucasian majority was the minority. That being said, any kind of racial stereotypes ... any kind of nuanced views of what minority students can do and their capabilities within the scientific field, were thrown out the door.

“You don’t really see the disparity,” she said. “You see how much that doesn’t affect these students, in terms of their ability. You just see a wealth of potential.”

Both Santos and sophomore King John Pascual, a pre-med concentrator in science and society and ethnic studies, certainly showed their potential. They each took home awards (a certificate and a $250 cash prize) for delivering outstanding talks in their research disciplines. Only a few other universities had more than one winning speaker.

What Santos and Pascual demonstrated and observed in others was that all some students need is opportunity. Provide them one or two opportunities, and they’ll run far and feel inspired.

“Presentations at research conferences forge the link between experimentation and analysis and in the process, expand and reinforce the knowledge students acquire during their research projects,” said Medeva Ghee, director of the Leadership Alliance, a consortium of 32 colleges based at Brown that promotes leadership and career development opportunities among students from underrepresented groups. Santos was one of 21 Leadership Alliance-affiliated winners at ABRCMS.

Students didn’t just present research. They also had the opportunity to look into internships and to attend seminars on preparing for medical school and graduate school.

“Research conferences provide useful networking opportunities for a community of young scholars by bringing them together with faculty, administrators, young professionals and like-minded peers,” said Ghee, who attended the St. Louis conference as well. “When students see others at advanced stages along the training pathway who are accomplishing goals similar to their own nascent goals, it helps to clarify and validate their decision-making processes and build networks to insure supportive mentoring along the academic path.”

In addition to Santos and Pascual, other Brown students at the conference included Jessica Chery, Jennifer Conti, and Chloe Poston.

Super summers

Santos found her summer research opportunity through the Leadership Alliance. A resident of the Long Island village of Cedarhurst, just a stone’s throw from Kennedy Airport, she was happy to land in the lab of Brown alumnus Dr. Charles Glatt (A.B. 1986) at Weill Cornell Medical College in Manhattan.

There she studied the underlying neurophysiology of the tragic eating disorder anorexia nervosa in mice. She worked on genetic modeling and behavioral studies in the mice, hoping to achieve new insights into how the transport of the neurotransmitter serotonin affects anxiety symptoms and correlates with anorexic behavior. To an extreme degree, people with anorexia cope with their anxiety by refusing food.

“What we were trying to see is what exactly is diet restriction modulating that causes this decrease in anxiety,” she said.

Pascual, meanwhile, went north for his summer, to participate in the Continuing Umbrella of Research Experiences program. With a strong interest in race and science, fueled by a class he took at Brown last year called “The New Science of Race: Racial Biomedicine in the 21st Century,” he worked in the Harvard Medical School lab of Dr. Charles Lee, who studies genomic variations. In particular he looks at “copy number variants,” or the phenomenon of people ending up with too many or too few copies of different genes.

Pascual, who is from McAllen, Texas, applied next next-generation sequencing methods to examine the potential impact of genomic structural variations on the progression of diseases such as HIV and cancer. But Pascual’s broader, more socially minded interest in genomics is in a historically controversial question: What does genetics have to say about race and how people are categorized? Moreover do new gene sequencing and analysis tools offer scientifically valid explanations for the prevalence of racial disparities in disease?

“There is no straight answer to this at the moment,” he said.

Meet me in St. Louis

In each case, the students just needed a little encouragement to go to St. Louis.

Santos presented at a Leadership Alliance conference where she won over an attendee from the American Society of Microbiology, which runs the ABRCMS. The microbiologist encouraged her to apply for a $1,500 award to attend the St. Louis conference. Meanwhile, at Harvard, the coordinator encouraged students to go. Harvard covered Pascual’s trip to Missouri.

But attending is one thing. Presenting is another. Only 96 of 1,691 abstracts submitted to the conference earned their authors the privilege of speaking, Pascual said. But both Santos and Pascual impressed the conference judges enough with their abstracts that they were chosen to speak, rather than present a poster.

Both Santos and Pascual confessed that they were nervous taking the podium because the other speakers in their group seemed so talented.

When she was done, Santos received a reward that she may treasure much more than the certificate or the cash: A pat on the back from Alejandro Sanchez Alvarado, a prominent researcher at the Stowers Institute for Medical Research in Kansas City and an investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

It was another reminder that she’s part of the scientific world and that her more senior colleagues are eager for her to succeed.

“There was a sense of community,” she said. “I felt like I could reach out to members of the scientific community. I feel like at one point in time these really accomplished members of the scientific community were in my shoes. I think they are well aware of that. They are more willing to help than you would think.”

Encouraging this community’s advancement, Pascual said, is not just a matter of identity politics, but also of sound U.S. science and technology policy.

“At a time when progress in science and technology is a key element to a country’s success in the world, it is essential to tap into our resources in every way we can,” Pascual said. “It’s nice to see government-sponsored programs like ABRCMS encouraging the development of domestic talent among traditionally underrepresented students.”

For all the inspirations and benefits the conference provided, Santos said she hopes more Brown students will seize the opportunity in coming years.