Brenda Andrade, Ph.D., assistant professor at California State University, Los Angeles (CSULA), wasn’t sure what she wanted to do when she first started community college. Through a program at her high school, she’d participated in Saturday morning science labs on the CSULA campus, and that introduction to science led her to think about pursuing some sort of scientific degree. She recalls flipping through the course catalog to the list of science classes needed to transfer to a 4-year university, and “naively going down the list and taking them.”
When a professor asked her if she’d thought about doing research, she responded, “What’s research?” That professor introduced her to the transfer program between the community college and nearby CSULA, and he encouraged her to apply to the NIGMS-funded Bridges to the Baccalaureate Research Training Program. When she did, she was accepted and began a summer research internship working in the lab of Linda Tunstad, Ph.D., a successful chemist with a similar background to Dr. Andrade’s. “That experience set my career trajectory,” she says. “I saw people like me, other Latinx people and people from underrepresented groups, doing research and thriving, like Dr. Tunstad. It really motivated me.”
Anyone who’s spent time in an academic science lab has probably heard about lab culture. Many labs boast long, rigorous working hours, while others require graduate students and postdoctoral trainees (postdocs) to meet often-unattainable experiment quotas each week. But is sheer quantity really the gold standard we want to hold ourselves to when it comes to training the next generation of scientists?
Neil Garg, Ph.D., Distinguished Professor and chair of the department of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), and Jen Heemstra, Ph.D., Charles Allen Thomas Professor and chair of the department of chemistry at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, think not. In fact, they both felt so strongly that this mindset of training is so outdated and detrimental to academic excellence and integrity that they joined together to create #MentorFirst, an initiative encouraging academics to embrace mentorship in conjunction with research. “As faculty, both research and mentorship are important,” says Dr. Heemstra. “But it makes a huge difference which one we put first.”
Mentoring is a vital part of training the next generation of scientists. Through a variety of programs ranging from the undergraduate to faculty levels, NIGMS fosters the training and the development of a strong and diverse biomedical research workforce.
To celebrate National Mentoring Month, we’re highlighting a few of the many NIGMS-funded researchers who emphasize being great mentors. Check out the snapshots of our interviews with these mentors to see what they think about mentoring and to access and read their full stories.
Scientist Studies Burn Therapies After Being Severely Burned as a Child Julia Bohannon, Ph.D., inspired by her own experience of being severely burned as a child, researches therapies that could prevent patients with burns from developing infections. Dr. Bohannon also mentors students, particularly those who hope to be both parents and scientists. “I’ve had a lot of women ask me for advice on how to be a mom and pursue a career in academia, and it’s been a really cool experience to be able to share that with students and trainees,” she says.
“Being able to ground your research in questions coming directly from your patients and their families is so meaningful and a huge part of why I’m interested in becoming a clinician-scientist,” says Amelia Wilhelm, an M.D.-Ph.D. student in the NIGMS-supported Medical Scientist Training Program (MSTP) at the University of Washington in Seattle. MSTPs prepare students to combine clinical practice and rigorous scientific research in their future careers.
Continuing the Family Tradition in Science
As a child of two scientists, Amelia was exposed to research and medical careers from an early age. She earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, and then began working as a lab technician at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia in Pennsylvania. Watching the principal investigator of her lab, clinician-scientist Lindsey A. George, M.D., interact with patients inspired Amelia to pursue a similar career.
When asked why he leads the NIGMS-supported Science Education Partnership Award (SEPA) program at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, Roger D. Sloboda, Ph.D., the Ira Allen Eastman Professor of Biological Sciences (emeritus), shares a story. Several years ago, he learned of a public-school science teacher in rural New Hampshire who had a very limited budget for classroom equipment. With her annual budget, she’d been able to buy a single stainless-steel laboratory cart. “Next year, I hope to buy a piece of equipment to put on it,” she said. A short time later, Dr. Sloboda attended a scientific meeting and talked to a student from a private school in Washington, D.C., who was presenting a poster about his research project studying the effects of household chemicals on zebrafish development. Dr. Sloboda asked the student how he was able to work with zebrafish, because they require specialized, expensive facilities. The student responded that his school maintained its own zebrafish facility.
American Indian and Alaska Native (AI/AN) populations have long experienced health disparities such as higher rates of diabetes, certain cancers, and mental health conditions than those of other Americans. One contributing factor in these disparities is underrepresentation of AI/AN populations in biomedical science—as study participants, researchers, and health professionals. Unfamiliarity with health care options and opportunities, coupled with a distrust of biomedical research resulting from unethical studies in the past, have exacerbated this underrepresentation.
NIGMS-supported researchers, including Native scientists, are partnering with AI/AN Tribes to help reduce health disparities by conducting research focused on AI/AN health priorities and building infrastructure that supports research in those communities. They’re also preparing Native students to pursue careers in science and medicine. In this post, you’ll meet four scientists advancing AI/AN health.
“I’m most proud of how this program is truly impacting the diversity of academia by including individuals from backgrounds historically underrepresented in STEM and the biomedical research workforce,” says JoAnn Trejo, Ph.D., professor at University of California San Diego (UCSD) and director of San Diego’s Institutional Research and Academic Career Development Award (IRACDA). The program, now in its 20th year of NIGMS funding, aims to train a diverse group of postdoctoral fellows (postdocs) for both the teaching and independent research aspects of a career as a professor in the biomedical sciences.
The San Diego IRACDA focuses on preparing its fellows for tenure-track positions at different types of institutions, including research-intensive universities. Fellows typically go through a 3-year program where they work in a research lab at UCSD, teach at one of the two “partner” schools (both of which are minority-serving institutions), and take career development courses in skillsets like effectively mentoring, running a cutting-edge research lab, and innovatively redesigning undergraduate science courses. Fellows also mentor students at the partner schools, helping them prepare graduate school applications, putting them through mock interviews, educating them in research, and teaching them how to read and understand scientific literature.
When he started high school in Mexico, Pedro Márquez-Zacarías, Ph.D., wanted to be a politician. However, as he became aware of issues like corruption, he began looking into other fields. Chemistry fascinated him, so he enrolled in a class at his school that was later canceled partway through the year. He then joined a biology class because it included a unit on biochemistry, and through that experience, found that he enjoyed other aspects of biology as well—so much so that he went on to compete in the International Biology Olympiad, a competition for high school biology students.
After graduating from high school, Dr. Márquez-Zacarías majored in biomedical sciences at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México and discovered a passion for ecology and evolution. During a class activity where students had to present scientific papers, the work of evolutionary biologist William Croft Ratcliff, Ph.D. riveted him. Dr. Márquez-Zacarías began an email conversation with Dr. Ratcliff that led to visiting his NIGMS-supported lab at the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) in Atlanta.
Dr. Bobylev focuses on training students to conduct rigorous, meaningful research and to communicate it clearly to a variety of audiences, including the general public, scientists, and policymakers. He believes that this emphasis on strong communication skills is one of the reasons why his students were often selected for Posters on the Hill—a prestigious annual event where undergraduate researchers presented their work to lawmakers in Washington, D.C. Since 2008, 10 of his mentees were chosen to participate.
“I feel really pleased with how well our students have done despite entering the program in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic,” says Katherine Friedman, Ph.D., an associate professor of biological sciences at Vanderbilt and a co-director of its MARC program. Four of the six first-cohort students are entering doctoral programs in fall 2022, and the other two have made preparations to pursue higher degrees at a later date.