KENNESAW, Ga. | Nov 28, 2023
Weeks after finishing his undergraduate degree in biology, Tyler Hill opened his email to a notice of a master’s degree program at Kennesaw State University that would serve as a stepping stone to a doctoral degree.
The email, forwarded by a friend, told him about the Peach State Bridges to the Doctorate Program at Kennesaw State. That email set him on his way, bridging his undergraduate days at Morehouse College to the Master of Science in Integrative Biology (MSIB) at KSU, and ultimately to a Ph.D. in neuroscience at Brandeis University.
“I’m sitting there figuring out what to do with my life and I get this email about a Kennesaw State program for people who want to get a doctorate but don’t really know how to get there,” Hill said. “Kennesaw State showed me the way, and I wouldn’t be where I am without my experiences there.”
Hill’s success highlights the effectiveness of the previous Bridges program, founded in 2018 by KSU professor Jonathan McMurry. Thanks to stories like Hill’s, the program recently received a new five-year training grant renewal worth $2 million from the National Institutes of Health, with professors Melanie Griffin, Martin Hudson, and Kojo Mensa-Wilmot serving as co-principal investigators on the renewal.
Hill was part of the second cohort of students at KSU to matriculate through the Bridges program, and Griffin said 85% of participants in the program over the years have moved on to doctoral programs. Housed in KSU’s College of Science and Mathematics, the program supports master’s students in integrative biology or chemical sciences from underrepresented communities who plan on seeking doctoral degrees in biomedical sciences. Participants receive mentoring both in and out of the laboratory from several faculty mentors throughout the College, as well as research opportunities that can lead to publications and bolster their qualifications for doctoral programs.
“Students who come to us want to pursue doctoral degrees but feel they need a little more experience,” said Griffin, interim chair of the department of molecular and cellular biology, director of special programs and associate professor of biology. “At KSU they work on a master’s, which will give them that research experience, build their confidence and then they're part of this professional development and mentoring network with us that helps prepare them for the next step. So, when they go on to doctoral programs, they feel confident that they are ready to take off.”
In addition, Albert Campbell said he has benefited from immersion into the academic culture of graduate school, which in turn has helped him in other ways. A second-year Master of Science in Chemical Sciences (MSCB) student, Campbell earned a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry from KSU and stayed on to work in the lab of assistant professor of organic chemistry Carl Saint-Louis. Campbell has presented his research at local and national levels, and he has co-authored research articles in respected chemistry journals.
“They definitely want you to have those problem-solving skills and time management skills while working in the lab and taking classes,” said Campbell, who plans to pursue a doctorate in chemistry. “In terms of my research, I successfully troubleshot issues in the lab and worked around those problems, something you have to do to be successful in science and something I’ve learned at KSU.”
Campbell added that the program pushed him out of his comfort zone, in terms of compiling his research and presenting it publicly. Wendy Aquino-Nunez agreed, saying her mentor, Hudson, had her presenting research at a conference within the first year of her master’s studies. Aquino-Nunez came to KSU from the University of Puerto Rico, where she earned a bachelor’s in cellular and molecular biology. She graduated with her MSIB in 2018—with Hill in the second cohort—and said Hudson’s mentorship has served her well during her doctoral studies at the University of Kansas.
“My experience at KSU helped build my confidence so that I could take ownership of my research,” she said. “I think of how much I grew there thanks to Dr. Hudson and his mentorship. Dr. Hudson and the Bridges program helped build critical thinking, independence and leadership in a great way, and that is something that I will always carry with me.”
The renewal of the NIH grant also gives the Bridges program the ability to offer more generous stipends to trainees, as well as covering the costs of attendance. Hudson said recruitment is a big priority for the program now, and this financial flexibility will help those efforts.
“The definition of underrepresented has been expanded by the NIH to include financially disadvantaged students,” said Hudson, interim associate dean for research and graduate studies and professor of biology. “We can serve a larger population, so we’d like to make sure that folks understand that they may qualify for funding under this mechanism.”
That initial cohort is indeed taking their lessons into the world. Hill recently defended his dissertation—with Hudson looking on virtually—and Aquino-Nunez plans to defend her dissertation in the summer. Hill and Aquino-Nunez each hope to attain tenure-track positions in academia, while Campbell has his eyes on a position at a pharmaceutical company after earning his Ph.D.
Griffin and Hudson look on as proud mentors, understanding that the future of the Peach State Bridges to the Doctorate looks bright. Even with the recent five-year renewal, Griffin said she hopes the program thrives in perpetuity, thanks to the trainees who blossomed during the two years as KSU master’s students.
“As we move forward, we hope this is a stronger, steady program that can go on and have no problems being renewed in the future thanks to these students,” she said. “It’s exciting now to see them starting to complete their Ph.D.’s and see what they do next. We may be seeing new assistant professors and postdocs. It’s extremely gratifying.”
– Dave Shelles
A leader in innovative teaching and learning, Kennesaw State University offers undergraduate, graduate and doctoral degrees to its more than 45,000 students. Kennesaw State is a member of the University System of Georgia with 11 academic colleges. The university’s vibrant campus culture, diverse population, strong global ties and entrepreneurial spirit draw students from throughout the country and the world. Kennesaw State is a Carnegie-designated doctoral research institution (R2), placing it among an elite group of only 7 percent of U.S. colleges and universities with an R1 or R2 status. For more information, visit kennesaw.edu.