Science & Technology

Veterinary lab expands STEM opportunities

A professor shows three students how to run a test.
Hemant K. Naikare works with students from the exploratory academy in 2019. (Submitted photo)

Tifton lab honored for program serving underrepresented rural communities

A University of Georgia lab in Tifton was recognized in August for its efforts to expand the number of underrepresented, first-generation and rural students who choose careers in science, technology, math and engineering.

The exploratory academy at the University of Georgia’s Tifton Veterinary Diagnostic & Investigational Laboratory received a 2021 Inspiring Programs in STEM award from Insight into Diversity, the oldest and largest diversity publication in higher education.

According to a recent Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. government data, diversity remains lacking in STEM jobs, particularly among Black and Hispanic workers. This issue first needs to be addressed in the educational system. The UGA exploratory academy is the first laboratory-centered instruction model for undergraduate and high school students from underserved rural communities in South Georgia.

The academy is a full-day series of workshops that give participants a glimpse of careers in veterinary medicine, biotechnology, molecular biology, microbiology and pathology through interactions with the faculty and technologists working at the lab.

Exploring career opportunities

“Our intent is to give these students an idea of what career opportunities exist besides being a veterinarian,” said Hemant K. Naikare, lab director and associate professor of infectious diseases. “Students learn about infectious diseases, public health, food security, etc. We increase their awareness and exposure to veterinary medicine with an emphasis on lab diagnostics.”

With the help of a New Approaches Diversity and Inclusion grant awarded by UGA’s Office of the President and Office of Institutional Diversity, the lab has been able to offer several full-day workshop series as well as a competitive two-week paid internship in each of the four microbiology disciplines: bacteriology, molecular diagnostics, serology and virology; clinical pathology and anatomic pathology. Selected students observe and shadow the faculty and staff and receive hands-on experience and training in different veterinary para-clinical specialties.

Overall, 150 students participated in the workshops, including several students from the 4-H programs of the surrounding middle and high schools.

Increasing UGA’s footprint

The Tifton lab is surrounded by several undergraduate schools that have students from rural communities in South Georgia, including Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College, which enrolls many first-generation college students from underserved communities, and Fort Valley State University, a historically Black university located in Peach County.

Most of the undergraduates are pre-med or animal science majors, said Naikare. “They are in awe because they get to see real clinical cases where the diagnostics lab plays a role. We’re trying to increase our footprint in South Georgia, increase educational opportunities and encourage students to pursue degrees at UGA.”

UGA’s exploratory academy was one of 79 programs to receive this award, which recognizes efforts by colleges, universities and outside organizations. From hands-on learning activities to mentorship and community support, each of the winning programs developed strategies to introduce a diverse group of students to academic, extracurricular and professional opportunities in STEM and prepare them for some of the nation’s most in-demand careers.