Meet the First Cohort of the MARC Program

In March 2023, a team of University of Maryland's (UMD) faculty received the Maximizing Access to Research Careers (MARC) Award, giving them the means to lead a research training program for students traditionally underrepresented in STEM. Now, the first students to participate have finished their first year in the program.

Funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the MARC Program at UMD aims to support trainees in overcoming barriers to entering research and to prepare them for research careers. Led by Fischell Department of Bioengineering (BIOE) faculty members Alisa Clyne, Katharina Maisel, and Kim Stroka, the three-year program gives students the opportunity for hands-on research experience. Starting the program as sophomores, students rotate through two labs in their semester, and get matched to remain in one lab for their remaining five semesters. Learning the facets of being a researcher, they will assemble abstracts, submit fellowships open to undergraduates, take part in the scientific community, and manage their own education finances.

The MARC program strives to produce experiences that underscore the importance of building technical skills and of developing the adaptability needed to thrive in the dynamic landscape of scientific research. Each year, the program will welcome a selective new cohort of rising sophomores to join the program.

As of May 2024, three students have completed their first year as MARC Program scholars: Hahnbit Kang, Heather Neisser, and Wilhelm Smith. Read on to learn more about these outstanding students and their journey in the program.

If you are a rising sophomore interested in becoming a MARC Program Scholar, the program is currently accepting applications until June 30, 2024.

Hahnbit Kang is a second-year microbiology student. She describes the MARC program as an opportunity for students underrepresented in STEM to be provided with a structured curriculum covering various research-related topics, from scientific writing to experimental design.

The MARC program also provides hands-on lab experience through rotation to explore different labs and learn basic techniques in synthetic biology. Kang stated that through this program, she found the exposure helpful in understanding her research interests. “Being in the program, working with other researchers, and hearing their experiences really solidified my decision to apply to graduate school,” Kang says. “Seeing how committed the faculty are to helping us reach higher degree programs inspires me and drives my own passion to pursue research.”

For Kang, attending conferences and bonding with fellow STEM students and faculty mentors like Associate Professor Kimberly Stroka, Professor Alisa Klein, and Associate Professor Michelle Espino has been a deeply rewarding aspect of the program. Kang emphasizes how these experiences, such as traveling together and exploring new realms of learning, have played a pivotal role in forging strong connections among program members.

“I think it is an amazing opportunity to get to know some professors better and see their research. It’s also a great opportunity to really grasp what it's like to be in research and academia.”

Heather Neisser embarked on her journey in research while simultaneously navigating the challenges of a new physical condition. After starting her college career without a disability, Neisser faced the harsh realities of transitioning into academia and research while developing the connective tissue disorder Ehlers Danlos Syndrome (EDS). The absence of researchers with disabilities at UMD presented obstacles for Neisser, who now uses a wheelchair for mobility. With no historical record or reference to make labs more accessible for those in wheelchairs, her initial attempts to secure a lab position were greatly hindered.

In the MARC program, Neisser was paired with a supportive mentor, Dr. Klein, who eagerly embraced the opportunity to collaborate and accommodate her unique needs. Together, they created a structured path of adaptation and innovation, reconfiguring lab spaces and protocols to ensure Heather's ideal incorporation. Their work to make labs more accessible will now offer a framework for future students with conditions like Heather’s.

Beyond the logistics of research, Neisser gained insights into the administrative and interpersonal dynamics of being a researcher.

“When I first got into research, because I was learning from the beginning, I didn't know how to do anything in my new situation. The program has really helped me learn how to undertake research and independent work, how to work with people, and how to utilize resources,” Neisser says.

Neisser reflects on the less visible aspects in research, such as facing setbacks and navigating the complexity of funding and financial stability in research. Her exposure to topics like grant writing, financial management on stipends, and the mental fortitude required to persevere through the challenges of a Ph.D. journey has been eye-opening.

With its small size, the program cultivated a tight-knit cohort united by shared experiences and aspirations, explains Neisser. Their participation in conferences like the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minoritized Scientists (ABRCMS) not only offered professional exposure but also cemented lifelong bonds. Neisser finds empowerment in the collective commitment to learning and growth, devolving innovation and fostering a culture of collaboration.

Wilhelm Smith is a sophomore studying bioengineering. For Smith, a standout aspect of the MARC program is its blend of hands-on lab work and classroom learning. He values the opportunity to work closely with professors and graduate students, learning research techniques and gaining practical skills. The program's structured classes cover various topics essential for research, from creating posters to presenting findings and documenting experiments.

“I really do like how you get to see both of those worlds. You have the classroom experience, and you get to apply what you learn in the same week during the lab experience. That type of learning is really beneficial to me,” Smith says.

Beyond academics, Smith appreciates the program's focus on personal development. Guest speakers and workshops on topics like financial literacy, like the one hosted by BIOE’s Assistant Professor Erika Moore, provide valuable life skills. Financial support from the program has also relieved some of the pressure of balancing work and school for Smith.

“The MARC program is one of the best programs that focus on how they can develop you as a person in the future from all aspects. This allowed me to be able to stop working my summer job and focus more on school. I think that was a big bonus for me as a commuter, as it helped balance out my workload,”

Published June 4, 2024