Skip to Content

College of Social Work

Increasing Research Participation at South Carolina’s HBCUs

Oct. 23, 2019
Chris Woodley • 

South Carolina is home to several Historically Black Colleges and Universities, where some students are interested in research and aspire to attend graduate school. Thanks to the College of Social Work, HBCU undergraduate students are enhancing their education and preparing for graduate school through research opportunities.

The South Carolina Advancing Diversity in Aging Research undergraduate program was established in 2015 by College of Social Work Professor Sue Levkoff and Alan White and funded by the National Institute on Aging (a division of the National Institutes of Health). The goal of the five-year program is to address the lack of diversity among scientific experts in the aging field. This is accomplished by increasing the number of qualified underrepresented racial and ethnic minority students who intend to pursue graduate studies in science or aging. The program consists of two 10-week summer research training program for minority students at South Carolina’s five HBCUs (Allen, Benedict, Claflin, Morris and South Carolina State).

“The students who participate are highly motivated and driven to make the most of this opportunity to work closely with their faculty mentors,” Levkoff says. “They are also committed to serving as role models for other undergraduate students contemplating entering the STEM and aging fields.”

Claflin University students Terika Williams and London Thompson are two of the 10 students currently participating in the SC-ADAR program. Williams, a senior biology major, witnesses the first-hand the effects of aging as her grandmother now forgets her name and has limited mobility. But a cancer research internship after her freshman year motivated her to learn more. The program has also led her to pursue graduate studies in public health.

“I’ve learned so much about public health and seeing how adults age,” Williams says. “Taking a course at Claflin on the biology of aging motivated me to learn more about public health and the older adult population. I initially had my heart set on going to medical school, but though this program, I found that public health and aging were my passions.”

Williams added that her cohort suggested to Levkoff that the program should include additional classes to help prepare participants for navigating their professional development after graduation. Levkoff responded and this past summer’s cohort participated in classes on professional development and writing, which facilitated Williams’ development of a personal statement for her graduate school applications, as well as taking the Graduate Record Examinations.  

“Not only does the program provide a tremendous amount of hands on mentoring in research during their summer experience, we continue to work with the students as they prepare their applications for graduate and professional schools,” Levkoff says. “So far this year, I have written recommendations for schools of public health, medicine, physical therapy and biomedical sciences. The students have further provided peer networking to each other, providing support for pursuing education in STEM.”

Thompson, a junior computer engineering major, never had any research experience prior to beginning his first year in the SC-ADAR program this past summer. But he enjoyed how the program enhances his undergraduate studies by applying the knowledge learned in classes and seeing real-world connections. Along with his mentor, Professor Csilla Farkas of the College of Engineering and Computing, Thompson conducted research in assessing the privacy and security of various telehealth devices that are intended to benefit the elderly population.  

“I didn't know where I saw myself after I graduated. Even though I wanted to go to graduate school, I didn't necessarily know if it was the right fit for me,” Thompson says. “But this program has opened my eyes to research, showed me it’s the route for me, and I am on the right path.”

Another aspect of the SC-ADAR program are the faculty mentors assigned to each participant. When College of Nursing Assistant Professor Tisha Felder presented her research, Breast Cancer Disparities in Scientific Workforce, at last year’s SC-ADAR summer program, Williams was so excited that she immediately contacted Felder to inquire whether she could work with her the following summer.

“All students come in at different levels in terms of their interest, drive and passion for research, Felder says. “As a mentor, you must use a tailored approach to work with a student and help them understand the project. With Terika in particular, she is an independent thinker and learner and was easy to work with. Participating in the program reinforced for me how mentoring is like raising kids; you don't follow the same process for each student.”

Third-year College of Social Work doctoral candidate Betty Wilson is in her first year as the coordinator for pre-professional development for the SC-ADAR program. As a graduate of one of the participating schools (Claflin University) prior to attending UofSC for her master’s and Ph.D., she can easily relate to each participating student.

“The program has a unique emphasis and attraction because STEM programs are underrepresented with minority students,” Wilson says. “Some students have specific stories on how their family did not have access to certain healthcare. They have this unique drive and purpose, which is critical for minorities going into the healthcare profession, because they see the disparities and add a social justice element with SC-ADAR. Having the opportunity to address some of those disparities is important.”

The program has gained the attention of two national conferences. Nine of the 10 students, including five first-year participants from the 2019 SC-ADAR cohort, will present at a national conference this year. Six students’ abstracts were accepted for presentation at the 2019 Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students in Anaheim, California from November 13-16. Three other students are presenting their summer research at the 2019 ADAR Summit, a pre-conference workshop for the Gerontological Society of America 2019 Annual Scientific Meeting in Austin, Texas on November 12. Thompson’s poster was accepted through a competitive process for presentation at the GSA meeting.

Challenge the conventional. Create the exceptional. No Limits.