Justine Herrera

Recently, the Biostatistics Enrichment Summer Training program, better known as BEST, celebrated their 10-year anniversary. BEST has accomplished a lot in introducing minority students to the field of Biostatistics and Public Health. ODCI sat down with Justine Herrera, the Program Director, to learn more about her role at BEST and in supporting a diverse public health workforce. 

What is your role in the Biostatistics Enrichment Summer Training (BEST) Diversity Program?  What experiences in your life led you to this work?

Before 2009, I was at the Morningside campus coordinating a very similar summer research pipeline program for undergraduate students. Back in my hometown of Virginia Beach I helped run Learning Bridge, a non-profit program that provided educational support for underserved populations. One of the major activities of Learning Bridge was providing a summer enrichment program where students took English, Math and Sciences courses. 

My first job at Columbia was coordinating the educational outreach programs for an interdisciplinary center at the Morningside campus. One of my responsibilities was running Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) programs in Materials Science and Nanoscience. Undergraduates from across the country applied to spend eight weeks at Columbia doing research with a faculty member in the Physics, Engineering or Chemistry departments.

In 2008, I came to the Biostatistics Department, which just finished its pilot summer of the BEST Diversity program. Emma Benn and Gary Yu, the two DrPH students who co-founded the program, were handling not only the teaching but also the administrative aspect of running the program. Since I had experience running summer programs, I asked if I could help them with the administrative side of BEST and they were happy to have me take over that piece. I then took on the role of overseeing BEST after Emma and Gary graduated from the department.

I am now responsible for recruiting students to teach the summer courses. Every year I play a role in matching the undergraduate students with a faculty mentor who will expose them to a research project with real-world implications. I think we are achieving the BEST goal of creating a pipeline program to introduce students to the field of biostatistics and public health. Out of the 114 students who have gone through the BEST program, we have had 13 of them pursue a degree at Mailman.

How is BEST different from your previous pipeline program on the Morningside campus?  What keeps you here?

What’s different about BEST is that it really focuses on students from underrepresented populations in the STEM field (i.e. minority students, students from low socioeconomic background, first generation students with a disability) providing them with an opportunity to explore a field that they may not be familiar with. Also, I feel more of a connection with BEST students. Maybe it’s because I was a first-generation college student and I wish I had a BEST-like program when I was in undergrad.  

The students keep me here. BEST is a small program, 12-14 students each summer, so it feels like a family. I get to know each student while they’re in the program and I stay connected with many of them after the program. Every summer I get to work with a new group of diverse students. We have had many BEST alumni pursue degrees in our department and elsewhere. I enjoy seeing students learning more about what graduate school is like and figuring out if this is a fit for them. Regardless of where BEST alumni end up, they will always be a member of the Biostats family. 

How can our students learn more about BEST or get involved with BEST?

We are always looking for Biostats students to teach our courses to the undergraduates over the summer. I encourage all students to attend the BEST poster session and see the great work our BEST students are doing. I also recently noticed an increase in the number of students asking me to look at their resume and personal statement before they apply for Mailman or other graduate schools. It would be great for these students to have another set of eyes on their application materials. I think our BEST alumni would benefit from receiving feedback from current Mailman students of color.   

If you are interested in supporting BEST students, e-mail Justine Herrera at jh2477@cumc.columbia.edu.