Women and ethnic minorities remain underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and medicine degrees. But in ways that may be different than you may think; for example, women make up half (50%) of all US workers in STEM occupations. Still, their presence varies widely across occupational clusters and education levels, according to PEW research. In recent years, STEM careers have become popular as the demand for technical skills for current and future jobs increase, and these jobs draw students with the promise of prestige and earning potential. But for many, the barrier to entering STEM careers is high. For example, many high schools in rural areas lack advanced math or science classes to get adequate education to move into STEM undergraduate degrees. With the increased emphasis on STEM careers, admissions to college STEM majors have become very competitive, often leaving female and underrepresented minorities little chance to further their studies in higher education.

Wake Forest School of Medicine is working to diversify the pipeline of future students by offering a range of programs that specifically cater to high schoolers to help prepare prospective students with STEM research opportunities. 

Across the country, the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health fund summer internships for undergraduate students. Within the Wake Forest School of Medicine, funded programs are led by faculty in the Center for Precision Medicine, Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine, Informatics, Biomedical Engineering, the Hypertension and Vascular Research Center and the Sticht Center for Healthy Aging and Alzheimer's Prevention. Undergraduate students in the Biomedical Engineering (BME), Excellence in Cardiovascular Sciences (EICS), and Enhancing Undergraduate Education and Research in Aging to Eliminate Health Disparities (ENGAGED) summer programs participate in research projects that study aging, cardiovascular disease, trauma, informatics and health disparities.  

Two women wearing white coats and gloves, one younger, work in a lab

2021 Biomedical Engineering interns at work in Wake Forest Biotech Place. 

The BME summer program was founded in 2005 by Joel Stitzel, PhD, chair and professor of biomedical engineering, with one undergraduate intern per summer and has grown substantially over the past 16 years with the current summer cohort hosting 31 undergraduate interns. BME’s program aims to build a diverse and robust STEM workforce by providing undergraduates with hands-on research opportunities, boot-camp and seminar sessions on technical and professional development topics, and opportunities for interns to present their research at the summer symposium and national conferences. Overall, BME has hosted more than 215 students over 16 summers. The current cohort is 65% female and 30% underrepresented minority students, and 40% of the students are from colleges with very limited STEM research opportunities. 

A large group of diverse young people stand on a flight of stairs and look up and smile for a photoAshley Weaver, PhD, associate professor of biomedical engineering, and Elaheh Rahbar, PhD, assistant professor of biomedical engineering, currently co-direct the National Science Foundation-funded BME summer research program. “Many of our students are from groups that are underrepresented or new to biomedical research," said Weaver, assistant professor of biomedical engineering. "The program serves as a pipeline to higher education, with over 80% of former participants pursuing advanced degrees after undergrad, and 20% of these returning to our Virginia Tech-Wake Forest University School of Biomedical Engineering and Sciences graduate program.”

Debra Diz, PhD, professor, Surgery-Hypertension, director, Hypertension and Vascular Research Center, and David Soto-Pantoja, PhD, associate professor, Surgery-Hypertension and the Hypertension and Vascular Research Center currently co-direct the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute-funded Excellence in Cardiovascular Sciences (EICS) summer research program. Originally established in 1993, more than 340 underrepresented and minority undergraduate students have participated in EICS over the years. Current topics cover COVID-19, racism, social inequity and injustice and their impact on minority health. 

A newer program, funded by the National Institute on Aging, Enhancing Undergraduate Education and Research in Aging to Eliminate Health Disparities (ENGAGED) is a joint program with WSSU and WFU—directed by Diz and Tina Brinkley, PhD, associate professor, gerontology and geriatric medicine.  

Trainees participating in the EICS and ENGAGED programs for 2021 were selected from across the country and represent 16 different universities. Demographics of the 2021 cohort are 68% female, 45% African American/Black, 23% Hispanic, 9% Native American/Alaskan Native, with 60% from disadvantaged backgrounds.