Hagar Kenawy wanted to go to graduate school, but she was missing an essential ingredient  — research experience.

Just after earning a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from Lafayette College in Pennsylvania, Kenawy spent the past year working in a tissue engineering lab at Virginia Tech and presenting her research at conferences. This month she is headed to Columbia University, where she will begin master’s and doctorate degree programs for biomedical engineering.

It’s all a result of the Virginia Tech Postbaccalaureate Research and Education Program, known as VT-PREP. This training program that prepares underrepresented baccalaureate students for admission into top graduate schools recently received a $2.1 million competitive renewal grant from the National Institute for General Medical Sciences. The grant will fund VT-PREP for the next five years.

Through the year-long program, which represents five Virginia Tech colleges and several institutes, scholars are paired with faculty mentors to do research in their interest areas. VT-PREP uses an individualized approach that includes research training and helping scholars develop presentation, writing, and networking skills.

“It helped me put things on my resume to show that I am interested in being a graduate student,” said Kenawy, an aspiring professor.

VT-PREP is the first interdisciplinary training program at Virginia Tech to be funded by the National Institutes of Health, according to Ed Smith, its founder and director and a professor in the Department of Animal and Poultry Sciences in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. The program’s core faculty come from a variety of departments and colleges, including the College of Engineering, the College of Science, and the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine.

Others on the VT-PREP leadership team include Luke Achenie, co-director and a professor of chemical engineering, and Daniela Cimini, a professor of biological sciences and chair of the program’s advisory council.

Throughout the new five-year grant cycle, 40 student trainees — eight per year — will go through VT-PREP. This represents significant growth. Since the program began in 2003, each year’s cohort previously included only four scholars.

Of the 100 total VT-PREP trainees, 37 have earned doctoral degrees. Some have received prestigious fellowships from NIH and the National Science Foundation. They have gone on to such careers as a research scientist in the U.S. Army, a health and equity research and policy lead specialist, assistant professors, and post-doctoral researchers.

VT-PREP is one of 12 graduate school preparatory programs in the country that is continuously funded. Currently, it is one of two in Virginia, among 40 nationwide. Virginia Commonwealth University houses the other PREP curriculum in the state. “As a program philosophy, we counsel local Virginia Tech students to apply to other PREPs,” Smith said, adding that Virginia Tech alumni have completed PREP years at such institutions as the University of Missouri and Virginia Commonwealth University.

This year’s cohort, the 16th, includes students who graduated from Georgetown University, the University of California San Diego, the University of Alabama, and other institutions.

Silvia Flores is among them. She graduated from Virginia Tech in May with a bachelor’s degree in psychology. But because she changed her major to psychology when she was a junior, she was unable to get hands-on research experience during her undergraduate years. Like Kenawy, Flores realized that having research skills and know-how was key for acceptance into graduate programs for clinical psychology.

“I needed something that would prepare me to be ready for an intensive Ph.D. program,” said Flores, who hopes to work with patients in a hospital or clinic in the future. “It’s just really fascinating to try to study how people think and how they think the way they think. It’s so relevant in people’s lives.”

Written by Jenny Kincaid Boone

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