When Savannah Elahian walked into a lab for a research internship at the University of Virginia last summer, the scientists looked like her — which was no small thing for Savannah, a young woman of color. The psychology and Africana studies double major is a graduating senior and a BUILD PODER scholar — CSUN’s groundbreaking undergraduate training program, supported by the largest grant in university history, which aims to increase diversity in biomedical and other research fields.
“I’d never been to Virginia before — I grew up in California,” said Elahian, whose research with CSUN mentors focuses primarily on African American youth and how discrimination may affect their academic outcomes. “It was really powerful, because you’re kind of in a place where you have to figure it out on your own. It’s a little scary but also really empowering.
“The BUILD PODER program helped me look at career options and pathways that I wasn’t even aware of,” she said. “I was able to work with so many black faculty. I felt like I could talk to them about issues such as black-run and African-centered schools, from a psychology perspective.”
On Feb. 13, Elahian and her fellow BUILD PODER senior, Natalie Dahan — a biology pre-med major and minor in Africana studies — helped lead a panel discussion, “Incorporating Diversity in the Sciences,” co-sponsored by the Department of Africana Studies and BUILD PODER as part of Black History Month. Alina Adamian ’15 (Microbiology), M.S. ’17 (Biology), a BUILD PODER alumna and CSUN recruiter for the program, also joined the panel and spoke about its opportunities.
BUILD PODER stands for Building Infrastructure to Diversity (BUILD) and Promoting Opportunities for Diversity in Education and Research (PODER). More than 240 students have participated in the program since its launch in 2014. Cohorts have been funded for doctoral, master’s and post-baccalaureate programs, and more than half of BUILD students are currently in graduate programs. More than 60 percent have been accepted into master’s and doctoral programs.
The program aims to increase the number of traditionally underrepresented students in the biomedical fields by training undergraduates in biomedical research and providing financial support. BUILD PODER’s focus is critical race theory, with an emphasis on solving health disparities in the biomedical workforce.
“Coming from a small high school, being a woman — especially in the sciences — and a first-generation student, even coming to college was a huge step for me,” Dahan said. “I chose biology, and my career goal is to help eradicate racial biases in the medical field. I hit so many times where I would go into science classes at CSUN and feel like I didn’t belong, I didn’t deserve to be there. What turned it around for me was when I became a leader [and peer mentor].
“I’m applying to one-year graduate (post-baccalaureate) programs to help me prepare for med school,” she said. “Being a first-generation, African-Cuban Jewish woman, it’s hard. It’s constantly pushing yourself, maybe harder than everyone else around you. Using your career path [to] fix a much bigger problem.”
In 2019, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced it had awarded CSUN $19 million over the next five years in ongoing support of BUILD PODER. This is one of the largest grants in CSUN history, following the original $22 million five-year grant from the NIH in 2014. The grant is the latest in a 10-year effort to establish a national model at CSUN that can be replicated at educational institutions of higher learning across the country.
During the panel discussion in Sierra Hall’s Whitsett Room, the panelists urged the crowd of students to consider research and apply for BUILD PODER, including summer research opportunities.
“The first time I applied to BUILD PODER, I didn’t get in. I didn’t take the application very seriously,” Dahan said. “The next year, I applied again and I took the application very seriously. I got in. I was looking for the research experience in a lab. At the time, I was debating a Ph.D., and this program really helped me weigh Ph.D. versus M.D. Also, in BUILD PODER, you’re sitting in this large classroom, in these hard, scary sciences like organic chemistry and forming this group where you can move on together, push and support each other.”
The deadline for BUILD PODER 2020-21 is 5 p.m. on March 1. For more information, visit https://www.csun.edu/build-poder.