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$1.4 million NIH grant: UNCP undergraduate research program gets new funding


A program to train scientists has a bright future atUNC Pembroke.

The university’s RISE Program (Research Initiative for Scientific Enhancement) was notified this summer by the National Institute of Health (NIH) that its grant was renewed for five years for $1.4 million.

The program, which prepares undergraduates for advanced study in science, pairs outstanding students with UNCP scientists for directed research. A summer internship component sends RISE Fellows to study at major research universities across the U.S.

The program was first funded in 2006. For 2010-11, it accepted 16 fellows. The grant is very competitive and results-driven, said Dr. Robert Poage and Sailaja Vallabha, RISE co-directors.

“Of the nine RISE Fellows who graduated in 2010, four are in graduate school and two in post-baccalaureate programs,” said Dr. Poage, who is a neurobiologist. “Doing this kind of research helps students gain admission to graduate programs, and it is essential for success in graduate school.”

“One of our primary goals,” Vallabha said, “is to build confidence in the students so that they can meet the challenges of the rigorous graduate admissions/the programs.”

“Our team is pleased to see that their hard work was validated,” Dr. Poage said. “I am pleased for the university, our science programs, the faculty who set a high bar for our students and especially for our students for meeting those challenges and excelling.”

Chancellor Kyle R. Carter was pleased, too. The teacher-scholar model of interaction with students that RISE exemplifies is important to UNCP’s future, he said.

“Faculty research is laudable, and student success is paramount to our mission,” Dr. Carter said. “When that scholarly activity involves our students, it builds student success and exemplifies the educational ideal of a teaching university.

“I congratulate the RISE team for their success,” he said. “Our students are the ultimate winners. This good news is energizing for all of us.”

Dr. Ken Kitts, provost and vice chancellor for Academic Affairs, said UNCP is a perfect partner for the RISE mission. “The renewal of this grant is due to the strong leadership of Dr. Poage and Vallabha, high quality science programs and faculty who understand the importance of student research,” he said. “UNCP’s strengths make us an ideal partner for the RISE mission to promote a diverse community of research scientists for the future.”

The RISE team consists of co-directors, Dr. Poage of the Department of Biology  and Vallabha, a faculty member in the Department of Chemistry and Physics, as well as the program’s coordinator Jakyrra S. Tyson and administrative assistant Sonda Rogers. They have been waiting for the award letter for almost a year.

Two of last year’s RISE Fellows were accepted to medical school, which Dr. Poage said is wonderful, but not helpful on the application. “I am very happy for them, but our role is to build research careers,” he said. “One of our graduates, Rhonda McClure, was accepted to a joint M.D.-Ph.D. medical research program at the University of Massachusetts. That was outstanding.”

RISE Fellows are paid an hourly stipend for up to 20 hours a week during the spring and fall semesters and up to 40 hours during the summer. This summer five students are conducting research at UNCP, two at UNC-Chapel Hill and one at the University of California at San Diego.

One of the most critical aspects of the program is matching student research interests with faculty willing to supervise them. “We hope to streamline this process in the future by working with the Pembroke Undergraduate Research Center (PURC) to build a single clearinghouse for one-stop shopping,” he said.

Faculty members work closely with the fellows during the academic year and summer, although they receive a stipend only during the summer. For the RISE program to succeed, the support of the university and faculty is essential, Vallabha said.

“Without the support of our faculty, it would be impossible to place RISE Fellows,” she said. “We have many people to thank—from the chancellor and provost to many faculty members who worked with RISE Fellows.”

The program’s growing alumni base is another asset, Dr. Poage said.  “We are building an alumni base so new RISE Fellows have a better idea what their future will look like. We have an alumni page on our website for students to view,” he said.

Student support from RISE comes in several ways:

  • help with difficult “core” science courses,
  • hands-on research training with a faculty mentor,
  • hourly wages for participating in program activities,
  • career counseling,
  • funds to attend scientific meetings, and
  • help completing graduate school applications.

The program is open to students majoring in biology, chemistry, physics or a related field with plans to pursue a graduate degree. For more information, go to, call 910.775.4428 or email