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Diversifying the Research Field

Ivan Cobian and Tanisha Gunby with research posters

As part of the USC DIA JumpStart program, the Division offers underrepresented undergraduates a clearer pathway to research programs in biokinesiology and physical therapy.



IVAN COBIAN ALWAYS KNEW HE WANTED TO PURSUE A DOCTORAL DEGREE, but he wasn’t quite sure how to navigate his way there. The road just became a lot clearer, though, thanks to his participation in USC’s Graduate Initiative for Diversity, Inclusion and Access (DIA) JumpStart program, which aims to provide non-USC undergraduates a pathway to PhD programs.

“My experience with JumpStart helped me realize I like doing research; I’d never been exposed to it,” explains the rising senior at California State University L.A. “This program is showing me how fulfilling it can be.”

Launched in 2018, the 10-week summer program provides academic and financial support as well as professional development opportunities to underrepresented candidates as a means of increasing the pool of diverse PhD applicants. Underrepresented undergraduate students from outside USC who will be rising juniors or seniors and are interested in pursuing a PhD program are urged to applied. This summer, nearly 30 students took part.

“We need to make sure we’re getting a variety of perspectives and that the questions we’re asking are applicable to all people and not just those who are typically represented in PhD programs,” says DIA JumpStart faculty advisor Amelia Cain. “It improves our diversity of thought, leads to diversity of questioning and makes for more robust research.”

DIA JumpStart advisor and post-doctoral researcher Christiana Butera agrees. “If you don’t see yourself represented in science, you’re unlikely to participate in it,” she said. “There needs to be inclusivity when it comes to participants in research studies and in the people running them because they’re the experts of their community.”


Hands-On Experience


This summer, the USC Division of Biokinesiology and Physical Therapy offered participants several opportunities across six labs. Students assist with existing studies and work on their own projects, with help from faculty advisors. At the outset of the program, participants formulate a question to research and then present their findings at an end-of-summer poster symposium.

Cobian, who found out about DIA JumpStart via an email at Cal State L.A., is assisting with behavioral coding in the Motor Development Lab under the mentorship of Butera and Associate Professor Stacey Dusing.

For his project, Cobian is focusing on whether a child’s interaction with parents and exposure to toys affects their cognitive abilities.

We need to make sure we’re getting a variety of perspectives and that the questions we’re asking are applicable to all people and not just those who are typically represented in PhD programs.
—Amelia Cain

Tanisha Gunby, a psychology major at University of California-Los Angeles who is also participating in DIA JumpStart, says when one of her mentors emailed her a program brochure, she couldn’t pass up the opportunity. “Since I’m planning to pursue a doctoral degree, it has given me a great foundation of biokinesiology and physical therapy research,” she says.

Under the guidance of Cain and post-doctoral researcher Marika Demers, Gunby is working on a project that monitors the movement of stroke survivors in their homes and communities using wrist and ankle sensors. “I’ve learned that I really enjoy interacting directly with stroke survivors and adapting the way I speak to each individual, since some people might have cognitive impairments,” Gunby says. “I’ve acquired a lot of knowledge and skills that are required for long-term research by being in the lab over the past several weeks.”


Win-Win Situation


Students aren’t the only ones enriched by their participation in DIA JumpStart. While Butera feels a responsibility to help up-and-coming scientists, she says she also enjoys having a fresh perspective in the lab. “You get new people who don’t know about your data, and it’s an opportunity to refine your training materials and get better at explaining your studies,” she says. “We work with families that aren’t overly familiar with science, so we try to explain it to them in the most understandable way.”

Participants like Cain and Gunby work full-time for the duration of the program, and their assistance goes a long way in helping faculty complete studies in a shorter amount of time. “The students are doing behavioral coding on video data, and it didn’t take long to train them,” Butera says. “Now we’ll be able to get a project completed by the end of the summer, so we also get a lot out of the program.”

Cain appreciates the sense of collaboration she finds in the lab and the “ability to engage with people who might have a different background than your own. It’s important to get varying perspectives, and it allows everyone to grow.”

In addition to providing students with faculty mentors and lab experience, DIA JumpStart gives undergrads interested in science or medicine an understanding of which types of career options are available in the field. “They find out, ‘OK, I can be a principal investigator of a lab, or I can be a lecturer, or I can go into a medical track,’” Butera says.


The Path Ahead


Gunby is keeping her options open when it comes to nailing down a specific career path, but her interests lie in psychology and the health sciences. “I was talking to my mentors yesterday, and they gave me a lot of great insight into both of their fields,” she shares. “One of them has a DPT, and the other has a PhD. I’m so grateful to have this opportunity. Not everybody is able to have a 10-week intensive lab experience. It definitely gives you a good opportunity to figure out what your interests are.”

A first-generation student, Cobian says DIA JumpStart is the biggest resource in his academic career to this point and has set him up for success toward his goal of attaining a doctorate. He’ll soon be applying to graduate school, where he plans to expand his knowledge of psychology and research, with a focus on health disparities. In all, he feels confident that the relationships he’s established at USC will make his next steps easier.

“I’m not just getting a letter of recommendation from a professor,” Cobian explains. “I’m getting a letter of recommendation from a principal investigator who is the director of the Motor Development Lab and has more than 73 publications. There are so many disciplines that DIA JumpStart caters to, and it’s opened the floodgates to so many opportunities.”