“I hope that one day I’m able to increase our understanding of evolution, and I also hope to increase access to research. I want others to know that this space is open to people who look like me, who come from disadvantaged backgrounds, and who are underrepresented in the sciences,” says Nkrumah Grant, Ph.D., a postdoctoral research associate (postdoc) in microbiology and molecular genetics at Michigan State University (MSU) in East Lansing.
Dr. Grant’s work receives support from the NIGMS Diversity Supplement Program (DSP), which is designed to improve the recruitment and training of promising researchers from diverse backgrounds. Diversifying the scientific workforce can lead to new approaches to research questions, increased recruitment of diverse volunteers for clinical studies, an improved capacity to address health disparities, and many other benefits.
The TU B2D is one of several NIGMS-supported B2Ds, which are dedicated to developing a diverse pool of well-trained biomedical scientists who will transition from master’s degree programs to research-based doctoral degree programs. B2Ds partner with Ph.D.-granting institutions to help aid students in the master’s-to-Ph.D. transition. Students in all B2Ds earn a thesis-based master’s degree and receive training to design, conduct, and analyze experiments effectively. At the same time, these students learn how to build successful applications for doctoral programs, whether they apply to the B2D’s partner school or another Ph.D. program.
“Our main goal is to get elementary students excited to learn about STEM, and for them to see how beautiful and relevant science can be to communities in eastern Montana,” says Amanda Obery, Ph.D., an assistant professor in elementary education at Central Washington University in Ellensburg, Washington. Dr. Obery co-leads the Authentic Community Engagement in Science (ACES) project with Matt Queen, Ph.D., an assistant professor in biological and physical sciences at Montana State University Billings (MSUB).
Scientists who are deaf and hard of hearing (DHH) are underrepresented at all career stages, especially at the Ph.D. level. To address this, the Undergraduate Research Training Initiative for Student Enhancement (U-RISE) training program for undergraduates who are deaf and hard of hearing at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) in Rochester, New York, has committed to lifting barriers and increasing DHH representation in science.
Part of RIT’s National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID), the program is now in its fifth year and prepares undergraduate students who are DHH to enter graduate programs through community-building activities, mentored research training, communication access services like interpretation, and much more. We’ve interviewed two RIT U-RISE students and its director to learn how the program supports its trainees.
“An important part of being in science is being in a community,” says Neil Garg, Ph.D., Distinguished Professor and chair of the department of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA). That philosophy has led him to prioritize mentorship, diversity, and inclusion—while maintaining research excellence—as well as re-envisioning what it means to educate students and the public.
Falling in Love With Chemistry
Science was always a part of Dr. Garg’s childhood. He participated in science fairs as a kid but says he did it for the community and not necessarily for the love of science. “When I look back on those projects, they were always with friends—never by myself,” he says. His parents were both scientists and strongly encouraged him to go into medicine, and although he became a premed major at New York University (NYU), he ultimately chose a different path.
Students with blindness and low vision are often excluded from chemistry labs and offered few accessible representations of the subject’s imagery, which can significantly hinder their ability to learn about and participate in chemistry. Bryan Shaw, Ph.D., a professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, hopes to change that through a program funded by an NIGMS Science Education Partnership Award (SEPA). His inspiration to start the program came from his son, who is visually impaired due to childhood eye cancer, and his son’s friends who have also experienced partial or complete vision loss.
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.