Rutgers Partnership Is Paving a Path for Tomorrow’s Biomedical Researchers

Junior Scientists
Laura Oyuela and Andrew Solomon are among the inaugural class of researchers in the Pathway for Junior Scientists program.

Rutgers New Jersey Medical School and Rutgers–Newark are helping biology students gain valuable hands-on laboratory experience

When Andrew Solomon transferred to Rutgers University–Newark from Middlesex College two years ago, he had no idea that biophysics was his calling. But once he settled on the science major, an obstacle stood in his way: a dearth of research opportunities on campus.

Determined to find time in a lab, Solomon spent a summer at Boston University, where he took part in BU’s Physics Research Opportunity Program. Then he applied to the Pathway for Junior Scientists program, a new Rutgers-Newark initiative partnering with Rutgers New Jersey Medical School (NJMS) designed to help undergrads like Solomon get the research hours they need – without leaving the city.

Andrew Solomon
“You don’t simply learn about science. To really excel, you need to ‘do’ science,” says Andrew Solomon. Photo: Jeffrey Arban

“Ever since the program in Boston, I knew that research with cells was something that I wanted to do more of,” said Solomon, who was selected for the Rutgers-Newark program’s inaugural class of researchers. “You don’t simply learn about science. To really excel, you need to ‘do’ science.”

Of the 7,500 undergraduates studying at Rutgers–Newark, a few dozen can “do” research, a disconnect borne less of interest than opportunity. In the biological sciences, for instance, National Institutes of Health–funded labs at Rutgers-Newark are already saturated with college students and can’t accommodate the 600 or so biology majors seeking appointments.

“Even if every lab took two undergraduate researchers, there would be hundreds left out,” said Nan Gao, a former cell biology professor at Rutgers-Newark who is a professor in the Department of Pharmacology, Physiology and Neuroscience at the medical school. “Most students at Newark don’t have the opportunity to participate in research.”

Working with William C. Gause, the senior associate dean for research at NJMS, Gao and other Rutgers–Newark leaders – including Jacqueline S. Mattis, dean of the School of Arts and Sciences–Newark; Sofia F. Pinto-Figueroa, associate dean of undergraduate study; and Honors College dean Laura Troiano – partnered to find a solution. They didn’t have to look far. 

About a mile down the road, NJMS had the opposite problem as Rutgers-Newark: It boasts more than 100 NIH-funded labs but has few students available to run the experiments.

By matching undergrads with NJMS researchers, a perfect synergy emerged.

“At the New Jersey Medical School, we have research laboratories studying everything from infectious disease to neuroscience,” Gause said. “What we didn’t have before this program was easy access to students.”

When pathway program applications closed in November, 132 undergraduates from the School of Arts and Sciences–Newark had applied for 20 laboratory openings. Students were selected based on interviews with faculty, experience, ambition and merit. “Every one of these students have great GPAs and are really motivated,” Gao said.

The program is particularly suited for students interested in a career in biomedical research, medicine, data science and related disciplines. Students are paid $800 per month and required to work a minimum of 10 hours per week in the laboratory. Since January, the first cohort has been working on research from pharmacology to pediatrics. 

Solomon, who was among the first 20 fellows, spent the spring semester working for Samantha Bell, an assistant professor of microbiology, biochemistry and molecular genetics, where he studies the bacterium that causes tuberculosis. Among his contributions: deploying a program he wrote in Python to do image analysis on cells. 


Laura Oyuela
Laura Oyuela is studying immune responses to infection by Plasmodium chabaudi, a rodent strain of malaria. Photo: Jeffrey Arban

Laura Oyuela, another program participant, was assigned to the lab of Robin Stephens, director of neuroinflammation in the Department of Pharmacology, Physiology and Neuroscience at NJMS. Oyuela is studying immune responses to infection by Plasmodium chabaudi, a rodent strain of malaria.

“For my project, we are infecting mice with two strains of the Plasmodium species to evaluate immunity,” said Oyuela, a chemistry major at Rutgers-Newark.

The goal, she said, is to try and find mechanisms that could trigger human immunity responses.

“I’m passionate about how science contributes to health care,” said Oyuela, adding, “A lot of people think research is just doing the experiments, but as I’m learning, it's so much more than that.”

Gause said these types of experiences are mutually beneficial for students and their mentors. Laboratories get the resources they need to conduct their work, he said, and students get a leg up on their peers. 

“It’s a great opportunity for college students at Rutgers-Newark to explore possible career opportunities and get their feet wet in terms of conducting biomedical research, which could really help when they apply for graduate school or jobs,” Gause said.

The inaugural cohort was so successful that Gause and Gao are now looking to expand. Starting in June, a summer research program will commence for Newark-area high school students and science teachers. As with the undergraduate program, high schoolers will be paid to work in NJMS labs during the summer; high school teachers will volunteer their expertise.

In addition, the merger of Rutgers’ two medical schools – NJMS and the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Brunswick – is expected to strengthen opportunities for educational and research programs.

Gause said the high school initiative is meant to create “more interactions with the community” and to serve as a “potent outreach program” for future Rutgers-Newark science students. 

“For high schoolers, the pathway program may encourage them to go to college, and for college students, it may entice them to pursue careers in biomedical research,” Gause said. “It’s a win-win for everybody.”