Creating a Pipeline for Diversity in Biomedical Big Data Research

New student training awards tackle challenges facing big data and minority student recruitment

Faculty members at the University of Virginia aim to train a diverse new generation of scientists and engineers to address the monumental challenge of biomedical big data manipulation, analysis and interpretation. Two newly funded student training awards from the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health suggest confidence in UVA’s ability to meet this goal.


To expose undergraduates to the relatively new field of systems bioengineering, a group of faculty proposed UVA as a site for a $362,000 National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergraduates Award (NSF REU) that focuses on integrating rigorous systems analyses with molecular, cellular, and tissue-level experiments. The first cohort of students will spend ten weeks working in a UVA lab this summer. Timothy Allen, associate professor of biomedical engineering, is the grant’s principal investigator.

REU Website  |  REU Application


UVA researchers launched a new graduate student training program in biomedical data sciences for the next five years, thanks to a $1.43 million grant from the National Institutes of Health’s “Big Data 2 Knowledge” program. The award will finance a pre-doctoral training program focused on teaching scientists to work at the interface of computer science, statistics, big data and biomedicine. BME professor Jason Papin is the grant’s principal investigator.


Allen explains that the NSF REU will draw applicants from a national pool, but recruitment efforts will target Fisk University, Howard University, Norfolk State University, Shepherd University, and the Virginia-North Carolina Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation, which includes five historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in Virginia and North Carolina. These schools will work closely with UVA to recruit science, math and engineering majors to apply for the program, particularly women and students from racial and ethnic groups that are historically underrepresented in science and engineering careers.

Papin says that a shared research focus and synergistic recruiting at HBCUs should over time result in a pipeline from the summer program to UVA’s graduate programs. A key contributor to outreach for both programs will be Kristopher Rawls, a Ph.D. student in Papin’s Lab who is currently serving as the national vice chair of the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE). Rawls says, “I see my position as helping UVA to recruit minority students to participate in new research areas, and at the same time I can connect NSBE members to research and mentoring opportunities that otherwise wouldn’t be available to them.”