By Cassidy DeStefano, news editor

The National Science Foundation (NSF) recently granted Northeastern University (NU) $496,000 to extend online seminars in nanomedicine to four minority-serving universities spanning the United States and Puerto Rico.

According to chemical engineering department chair and grant partner Thomas Webster, a collective group of 35 students from NU and the four affected colleges – Morgan State University, Florida International University, Tuskegee University and the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez – are enrolled in the four-course program.

“One of the things that goes on in science and engineering fields is a difficulty encouraging and retaining minorities,” Webster said. That’s why the grant focuses on innovative developments nanomedicine, which he defined asthe application of nanomaterials to improve disease detection, to boost student interest in science and research.

Associate research scientist Anne van de Ven said that the grant money is primarily used to host class teleconferences and build online collaboration forums.

“We do anything from blogs to Wikis to discussion boards to interactive group projects,” she said. “Not only are we enabling access to knowledge, but essentially now we’re developing an infrastructure for these universities to build programs of their own.”

Sri Sridhar, a professor of physics at NU and an NSF principal investigator, added that these colleges are not currently equipped with classes in the field.

“These schools are top-minority research institutions and they have complementary expertise in this area. But they don’t have these courses in place yet,” he said.

Another goal of the program, Webster says, is to inspire students from remote universities to come to NU to conduct research at the Boston facilities.

“Once we get them excited about the field, we want to teach the fundamental science behind it,” he said.

He added that diversity in nanomedicine provides a wide spectrum of potential solutions to chronic health conditions including cancer and diabetes.

“Nanomedicine gives us a fresh look at these problems; and by having diverse students with different backgrounds involved, you’re able to think out of the box a lot more,” he said.

However, not all NU students agree that diversity in research is vital in the medical field.

“Diversity is definitely important in all aspects of life,but you shouldn’t sacrifice how well the job is being done just to diversify the staff,” thirdyear criminal justice major Zachary Perry said, emphasizing that such a standard applies to any profession.

Jess Hahm, a visitor to campus, disagreed.

“It’s important for patients to build rapport with their medical personnel and part of that might have to do with factors such as race, ethnicity and socioeconomic background,” she said.

Still, Sridhar stressed the value of bridging the gap between minority students who attain a bachelor’s degree in the sciences and those who go on to conduct their own research.

“We’re bringing in not only cutting-edge knowledge but also a new model of education to minority students across the country,” he said.

Photo courtesy Francesca Fuerman, Northeastern University Department of Chemical Engineering