Public Outreach Spotlight: FIRST Program

October 07, 2019
First Program Participants 2019

With the aim of extending our work beyond academia, the Center for Science and Society supports public outreach grants for Columbia projects that educate students, foster public understanding, or work with the local community on issues at the intersection of science and society. Christopher Medina-Kirchner, a doctoral student in the University’s Psychology Department, was awarded a public outreach grant in 2018 for a pilot program to provide graduate-level research experience and training to formerly incarcerated students. Now in its second year, the Formerly Incarcerated Research & Science Training (FIRST) Program, has been awarded an additional round of funding and has expanded from two to five participants. 

The FIRST program trains formerly incarcerated students to address social justice issues through interdisciplinary scientific research. Formerly incarcerated mentors are available to help guide projects, develop career goals, construct professional networks, and simply provide advice and encouragement. In the second year of the program, the students’ research was focused around the theme of psychoactive substances and drug law enforcement policies. Chris was inspired to create this program from his own experiences in college after serving time in prison, and finding friendship and support through a similar initiative.

Name: Christopher Medina-Kirchner

Affiliation: Graduate School of Arts & Sciences, Psychology Department

Project: Formerly Incarcerated Research & Science Training (FIRST) Program

What motivated you to start the FIRST program?

At 18 years old, I received a six-year prison sentence for selling 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (also known as MDMA, Molly, and ecstasy) to an undercover officer. While incarcerated, I attended classes for college credit. Upon release, I enrolled as a transfer student at UW-Milwaukee. My excitement for gaining acceptance at the university was quickly dampened. I faced stigma and isolation as few people wanted to engage with someone wearing an electronic ankle monitor. However, in my junior year I found community and direction in the McNair Scholars Program, which trains underrepresented and non-traditional students to conduct scientific research. Through McNair, I met another formerly incarcerated student, and the isolation I once felt dissipated. This sense of community helped me thrive academically, and I eventually achieved a goal that I once thought to be unattainable: I became a doctoral student in the Department of Psychology at Columbia University. I created the FIRST Program to ensure that formerly incarcerated students are afforded the same opportunities I was through the McNair Scholars program.

What were the lessons learned from the pilot program and how have they informed the second iteration?

In the beginning, the FIRST scholars were from different fields of study and each researched a different topic. We learned much about each other’s respective fields; however, one could also say we were spread too thin. For the second iteration, although FIRST scholars still come from different fields of study, the research topic is the same: psychoactive substances. This way, we don’t lose the interdisciplinary approach and can comprehensively assess a single topic. Additionally, everyone in the program has been to prison for drug-related charges. This makes the topic of psychoactive substances more pressing and meaningful, as they have felt the consequences of drug law enforcement first-hand.

We also changed the name from the Formerly Incarcerated Reintegration Science Training Program to the Formerly Incarcerated Research & Science Training Program. Our focus is on research and science, and we wanted it to reflect in our program name.

In what ways has the program grown?

Through the relationships we’ve built since the start of FIRST, the program has grown and new collaborations have formed. For instance, last year we had Dr. Ciara A. Torres, an expert in behavioral pharmacology and Adjunct Professor in the Psychology Department, mentor one of the FIRST Scholars. Impressed with his work ethic and dedication, she offered him a position as a Research Assistant on a project assessing the effects of prenatal cannabis exposure on cognitive performance, as well as a teaching assistant opportunity for her Topics in Neurobiology Seminar. Not only has Dr. Torres been an amazing mentor, but she has also given guest lectures to the FIRST Scholars on how science interacts with society, especially through the impact of the injustice system. She admired their enthusiasm for the subject matter and subsequently invited the FIRST scholars to audit her class on the effects of psychoactive drugs on the brain and behavior. Starting this year, the class and course textbook (Drugs, Society, & Human Behavior 17th Edition, Hart & Ksir) have been incorporated into the program. Dr. Torres continues to be an amazing resource for the FIRST Scholars and is excited to continue collaborating with the program this year and beyond. 

Flores A. Forbes, award winning author and associate vice president in the Office of Government and Community Affairs, has been an influential guest speaker for the program. Flores wrote Invisible Men: A Contemporary Slave Narrative in the Era of Mass Incarceration (Sky horse Publishers, 2016), a book which details his journey through higher education as a formerly incarcerated Black man. Each year, Flores takes the time to share these experiences with the FIRST Scholars. Additionally, they are able to see that all hope is not lost with a criminal record, as Flores has been successful in his field. To assist the FIRST Scholars in their own academic journey, they are now provided with his book.

Importantly, I’ve come to the realization that some of the FIRST Scholars likely will not go on to pursue a science-related career. Still, in the program they learn to use data and evidence to dictate their positions. This surely will be beneficial to them in life and in whichever career path they choose.

What has inspired you the most about the program?

This is the easiest question to answer. The FIRST Scholars are by far the most inspiring. They are some of the brightest and hardest working students I’ve ever encountered, and have accomplished this despite overwhelming adversity. One of the FIRST Scholars is in a federal half-way house, which is meant to be a stepping stone from federal prison to the outside world (hence the term ‘half-way’ house). Every time he plans on attending a FIRST event, he has to apply for a pass. The half-way house rules are so strict that if he is late coming back from class, he risks reincarceration. Despite these additional burdens, he is excelling in the program. All of the FIRST Scholars have stories of dealing with and overcoming adversity while seeking education. They are all inspiring and have motivated me to keep the program going.

What are your future plans for the program?

I will be applying for larger grants so that I can accept more people into the program and provide them with more resources. At this time, access to new technology is an issue. I would like to at least provide all participants with some sort of laptop or tablet. Additionally, I want to implement the program inside of prison so students can be prepared for graduate school upon their release.

To learn more about the FIRST program and the other projects of our grant recipients, please visit our Public Outreach page.