IRWG awarded $1.2M grant to launch research education mentoring program for undergraduate students

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Blue square with a yellow silhouette of a bird flying. In the center in large white font is text that reads 'SOAR: Student Opportunities for AIDS/HIV Research"
Blue square with a yellow silhouette of a bird flying. In the center in large white font is text that reads 'SOAR: Student Opportunities for AIDS/HIV Research"

June 1, 2021

The Institute for Research on Women and Gender (IRWG) received a five year, $1.2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to develop and implement an innovative academic and research mentoring program for undergraduate students across the University of Michigan’s Ann Arbor campus.

The Student Opportunities for AIDS/HIV Research (SOAR) Program, scheduled to launch in September, is a two-year experience for juniors and seniors that aims to prepare students for graduate education and eventual careers in behavioral and social science research involving HIV/AIDS, with a focus on sexual and gender minority communities.

The program will also help to diversify the HIV research workforce in the U.S. by actively recruiting students who are underrepresented in the biomedical, clinical, behavioral and social sciences.

“Sexual and gender minority (SGM) people and communities account for the vast majority of HIV cases in the United States, with Black and Latinx people being disproportionately affected,” said Gary Harper, professor of Health Behavior and Health Education in the School of Public Health. “Unfortunately these communities also experience a host of negative societal factors, so it’s crucial that the next generation of HIV behavioral and social science researchers have cutting-edge knowledge of the complex factors that influence HIV prevention and care within SGM communities.”

Harper and IRWG Director Anna Kirkland are leading the new program, which will be based in IRWG, a unit of the Office of the Vice President for Research. The program will involve strong collaboration across the schools of Public Health, Nursing and Social Work, as well as the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts (LSA). The program proposal emerged after IRWG’s Transgender Health Research group held a collaborative ideation session with the Michigan Institute for Clinical & Health Research (MICHR) in fall 2019.

“A hallmark of SOAR is that students engage in HIV-focused research experiences with prominent faculty members at U-M,” said Kirkland, an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies. “There is nothing else in the country like this program, and we’re thrilled to launch it from our feminist research institute.”

Rising juniors enrolled at the Ann Arbor campus are eligible to apply to participate in the SOAR program. During their junior and senior years, students will complete two year-long research experiences and a short-term summer research experience or internship.

“Engaging in original research projects can be a transformational part of an undergraduate education at U-M,” said Anne Curzan, Dean of the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts. “SOAR is a remarkable opportunity for undergraduates pursuing both liberal arts and other degrees across campus.”

As part of the program, faculty across a variety of disciplines will mentor students as they participate in a wide range of global and local research projects ranging from innovative approaches to HIV prevention and treatment, to resilience and empowerment among populations at risk for or living with HIV. SOAR students also will complete two required seminar courses and receive individualized graduate school preparation support, conference travel support, psychosocial support, access to an exclusive study space and a laptop computer.

"More than 38 million people around the world are living with HIV/AIDS, and so in order for us to address this public health crisis, we have to build a stronger pipeline of researchers who can explore this important topic from a behavioral and social sciences lens," said Rebecca Cunningham, vice president for research and the William G. Barsan Collegiate Professor of Emergency Medicine. "The new SOAR program can help us achieve that, and concurrently, it provides our students with a tremendous opportunity to augment their education and really make an impact."

Given the program’s thematic focus on HIV-centered behavioral and social science research priorities within sexual and gender minority communities, students who identify as SGM and/or from groups identified by the National Institutes of Health as underrepresented in the U.S. biomedical, clinical, behavioral and social sciences research enterprise are encouraged to apply.

More information and application details can be found at irwg.umich.edu/soarQuestions about the SOAR Program can be directed to soar.info@umich.edu.

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