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15 years of the Beckman Scholars Program: Providing unparalleled undergrad research opportunities

Posted by on Tuesday, April 2, 2024 in AS Home, News Story, Research.

The highly selective Beckman Scholars Program is celebrating 15 years of partnership with the College of Arts and Science. Over the years, the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation has provided more than $543,000 in support of 23 undergraduate Beckman Scholars at Vanderbilt who engage in unique, hands-on, mentored research.

Group of individuals smiling
Beckman Scholars Tammy Le, Charu Balamurugan, Ahmed Imami, Camilla Guel, Sarah Hourihan and Professor Jeffrey Johnston. (Liz Chagnon / Vanderbilt University)

The Beckman Scholars Program (BSP) supports the most promising young students at premiere research institutions nationwide who demonstrate a significant commitment to undergraduate research in chemistry and biological sciences. When he arrived at Vanderbilt in 2006, Jeff Johnston, Stevenson Professor of Chemistry and co-director of the Beckman Scholars Program, quickly recognized that his talented students and dedicated faculty made Vanderbilt a strong potential partner for the BSP.

“I have always believed in the importance of undergraduate research,” said Johnston. “My approach was tailored to working with one to three students in my lab at any one time so that they might benefit from direct mentoring. This dedicated effort matched the spirit of the Beckman Scholars Program perfectly, and I applied for a Beckman Scholars Grant to edify Vanderbilt’s talent in undergraduate research. Looking around our departments here, I found an embarrassment of riches when it came to superb faculty mentors of undergraduate research in STEM.”

Johnston, along with the late Ellen Fanning, Stevenson Professor of Biological Sciences, worked together to write the first Beckman Scholars grant proposal for Vanderbilt. They received funding in 2008 and the partnership has flourished ever since.

Beckman Scholars are selected from a competitive applicant pool each year. They participate in 15 months of dedicated research in a laboratory under the guidance of a faculty mentor. The 15 Beckman Scholar mentors are leading A&S faculty with a track record of conducting exceptional lab research in a nurturing environment where they help undergraduates develop as scientists.

“Many undergraduate participants may not know that by engaging with these mentors they are partnering with a champion for their success,” Johnston said. “This relationship lasts a career. The longitudinal success of our scholar alumni speaks for both the student talent and the priceless mentoring from my colleagues.”

The parameters of the program are well-defined: scholars and mentors work on a focused research problem and publish their findings in scientific journals. During the 15 months as a scholar, students work 40 hours weekly in the summer and 15 hours weekly during the academic year.

“While our research laboratories operate year-round, it can be difficult to land financial support for undergraduates who remain on campus during the summer months,” said Johnston. “Interruptions to lines of investigation can be dream killers—it’s like being benched in the middle of the championship game. The program guarantees an uninterrupted 15-month period of support bookended by two summers. I can’t think of any other program in the country that provides this length of sustained financial support for undergraduate research.”

The personalized faculty-student mentoring relationship is one of the hallmarks of the program. Sarah Hourihan, a first-generation college student and 2022-23 Vanderbilt Beckman Scholar, reflected on the impact this relationship has had on her.

“One of the greatest blessings of my undergraduate years has been my research mentor, Dr. Nicole Creanza,” said Hourihan. “When I joined Dr. Creanza’s lab the summer after my freshman year, I had no prior research experience. Although my research lab was mostly computational, I had never even coded before. I am so grateful that Dr. Creanza invested in me so generously. I realize that having this amount of undivided attention from a research PI is not universal amongst undergraduate researchers, so I feel very fortunate.”

After graduating in May, Hourihan plans to attend graduate school, continuing her evolutionary biology research and teaching and mentoring others. Other BSP alumni have followed similarly impressive paths—becoming professors, continuing research, pursuing medicine, and starting businesses.

“The career success of our Beckman Scholars is proof that the nurturing and opportunity they received as researchers during their undergraduate time at Vanderbilt returns in dividends,” Johnston said. “We’re so thankful for the partnership and its prioritization of excellence. The program reinforces Vanderbilt’s stature among the elite undergraduate research programs in STEM.”

Learn more about the Beckman Scholars Program at Vanderbilt and how to apply.

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