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Spotlight on STAR U:
An Interview with Program Directors
Drs. Adam Brickman and Stephanie Cosentino,
and Program Coordinator Kiana Chan

What is the STAR U Program, and how has it been going so far?

The Summer of Translational Aging Research for Undergraduates (STAR U) is an immersive research and mentorship program for students interested in neuroscience and aging. While most of the training activities occur during the summer, much of the programming extends into the academic year and, hopefully, the relationships established will be lifelong. The ultimate goal of STAR U is to increase the diversity of our field by working with students from diverse and underrepresented backgrounds and encouraging them to pursue careers in research related to aging and neuroscience.

Last year, we invited our first cohort of STAR U Scholars to Columbia, which was an incredibly rewarding experience for the students, faculty, fellows, and other research personnel involved in the program. In addition to engaging with a faculty mentor on an individualized research project, students had the opportunity to take part in a seminar series related to scientific and professional development topics, shadow physicians, attend brain cutting, lab meetings, and become part of the broader community here at the Taub Institute. What really stood out to us last summer was the sense of comradery that scholars developed with one another and those involved in the program. It was special to see how students developed throughout the summer as they gained confidence and began to establish their identities as emerging scientists in the field.

We want to continue staying in touch with scholars beyond their STAR U summer and support them as they continue to navigate their academic and professional careers. Many of the STAR U scholars have presented their research at various scientific meetings and are starting to lead and co-author scientific papers for publication. In addition, several students are currently applying to graduate school programs ranging from psychology, medical school, MD/PhD programs, and masters programs in Public Health.
STAR U 2019 Scholars
STAR U 2019 Scholars

How did the program respond to the COVID-19 pandemic this past summer?

This past summer, we shifted to conducting a virtual version of the STAR U program, which aimed to provide scholars with the opportunity to learn more about the research being conducted in various labs, familiarize scholars with faculty mentors, and continue to engage in research and professional development topics. Ultimately, our goal for this remote program was to provide students with a more informed understanding of STAR U, the opportunities available, and introduce students to potential mentors which they could be able to work with once it is safe to conduct in-person programming. All the students who participated in virtual programming will be given the opportunity to attend the program this summer, assuming we will be able to host them in person.

What ways did you continue maintaining community and connection in the program, despite the remote format?

A really important goal for us is to make sure that we are providing support as students navigate their academic, personal, and professional development beyond the program. We have done this in the form of a STAR U Monthly Professional Development Series for alumni seeking advice related to the process of applying to graduate school/post grad opportunities, weekly check-ins with the program directors throughout the summer, a monthly newsletter, and are about to launch a professional development mentorship program with graduate students/post docs. Some alumni have continued working on research with a mentor, remotely as well. While virtual programming has allowed us to have a broader reach, we understand that virtual interactions can’t possibly replace that same sense of belonging and community that was created during the first year of our program. We are hoping to return to in-person programming next summer if it is safe to do so. However, if not, we will plan for alternative ways for students to gain a meaningful research experience despite being in a remote format.

How can members of the Taub Institute community support this important program?

The STAR U program is currently recruiting faculty mentors for the summer of 2021! If you have a research project focused on aging/neuroscience (ranging from cognitive neuroscience, basic science, epidemiology of cognitive aging, to patient-oriented clinical research) and would like to take part in mentoring a STAR U Summer Scholar next summer, please reach out to the STAR U Program Coordinator, Kiana Chan at kkc2146@cumc.columbia.edu.

In addition, please help us spread the word about the STAR U program and encourage undergraduate students from diverse backgrounds to apply! Our 2021 application for undergraduate scholars interested in brain aging is now open and interested candidates can apply here!

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