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University to Ramp Up Rural Biomedical Education in Alaska

The University of Alaska Fairbanks has received a $23.8 million grant to increase opportunities for rural students to study biomedical research and health sciences at 10 campuses across Alaska, according to a recent article by the Alaska Dispatch News.

The grant, which was awarded by the National Institutes of Health, will disperse funds over the course of five years to support the university's Biomedical Learning and Student Training (BLaST) program, which will offer scholarships, professional development workshops, and improved biomedical facilities in the hopes of attracting more students and more diversity to biomedical and health careers. 

Nationwide, science, math, engineering, and technology (STEM) programs are often lacking in rural schools due to shrinking budgets and teacher shortages. Students who graduate from rural high schools are less likely than their peers in more urban areas to have completed a high school science sequence of classes, including chemistry, biology, and physics. 

Nearly 70 percent of school districts in Alaska are small and rural, and more than 22 percent of students in the state are Alaska Native or American Indian. In the 2011-12 school year, only 54 percent of American Indian and Alaska Native students graduated high school within four years, compared to the state average of 70 percent.

Data show that native students are underrepresented in STEM courses and careers. In 2011, minority students, including American Indians and Alaska Natives, made up only 12 percent of students enrolled in graduate science and engineering programs, and only 10 percent of the workforce in science and engineering fields. 

Arleigh Reynolds, the associate dean of UAF's Department of Veterinary Medicine, said in a press release that Alaska's rural and native students can bring important skills and perspectives to STEM jobs in the state. "There are some really pressing public health and biomedical questions like climate change that are facing rural Alaska, and they're going to have huge impacts on the way that the culture, economics and lifestyles of people there are going to change," Reynolds said. "Students from BLaST will be the best advisers for those communities and can help people make really important decisions about how their life is going to change."

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