Barry Komisaruk


Barry Komisaruk, the former associate dean of the Graduate School–Newark, is the founder and current director of the Minority Biomedical Research Support program, which was created in 1984. He is pictured with students Jessica Rivera, left, and Lorraine Mejias, center.

John Emerson

When Lorraine Mejias transferred to Rutgers University–Newark from Middlesex County College in 2012, she was at a loss. With a double major in psychology and criminal justice and a minor in cognitive neuroscience, she was drawn to research but realized that she was significantly behind most of her peers. Two faculty members recommended that she apply to Rutgers–Newark’s Minority Biomedical Research Support (MBRS) program. She was accepted, offering her the opportunity not just to conduct research on her own, but also to network with peers at Rutgers and across the country. Today, as she plans to get a doctorate in psychology, Mejias SCJ’15 hopes to teach at a community college “to be in a position,” she says, “to bring more research opportunities to students like me.”

Since its founding in 1984, MBRS has offered financial and academic support to minority undergraduates and doctoral students at Rutgers–Newark, with more than two decades of continuous funding from the National Institutes of Health. The program’s founder and current director, Barry Komisaruk—former associate dean of the Graduate School–Newark, University Board of Governors Distinguished Service Professor of Psychology, and one of the university’s longest-serving faculty members—has seen it change the lives of scores of students. “The objective is to get students into research,” he says, “and we have a very, very good track record.” In the last 30 years, MBRS has supported 154 minority students, two-thirds of whom have gone on to get doctorates in the sciences.  “It is remarkable,” says Komisaruk GSNB’65.

When Komisaruk was rounding up faculty for the program in 1984, he encountered, more than once, the thinking that “minority students weren’t interested in doing research,” he says. Over the years, Komisaruk says, MBRS “has been a catalyst in transforming negative attitudes toward underrepresented minority doctoral students.”

To qualify, students must be matriculated full time at Rutgers–Newark, as undergraduates or graduate students, and maintain at least a B average. The program supports African-American, Hispanic, American Indian, and Pacific Islander students across many disciplines including biology, chemistry, environmental science, neuroscience, nursing, psychology, and physics. Participants receive a salary for 15 hours of research each week, and the program covers full tuition for graduate students.

With the guidance of MBRS faculty members, students get help in designing research projects; presenting their work to faculty and students at weekly workshops and professional conferences; publishing in scientific journals; and applying for research fellowships. Jessica Rivera, a doctoral student in Komisaruk’s laboratory, says that the weekly workshops offered an invaluable opportunity “to brainstorm ways to do our research better or to handle social issues we might be encountering.” Before MBRS, she’d never attended a scientific conference, which allowed her “to network with peers, professors, potential schools for the postdoc, and companies.”

Graduates of the program have gone on to work at institutions such as Yale and Harvard universities; Albert Einstein College of Medicine; the Mayo Clinic; and, of course, Rutgers–Newark. When asked about the rewards of the directorship, Komisaruk reaches for a photo of himself and former MBRS student Eleni Frangos on the day she graduated. Twice, Frangos NCAS’09, GSN’12,’14, who was raising a young daughter while attending Rutgers, nearly bailed on her education, but Komisaruk rallied fellow students to convince her to keep at it, and she did. Today, she’s doing her postdoc at the National Institutes of Health. Looking at the photo, Komisaruk beams: “It’s hard to know which of us is happier.”