At 9 years old, Raven Delfina Otero-Symphony wanted to be an astronaut. As a fourth-year statistics student at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, she still dreams of working for NASA—but as a statistician. You might be surprised to learn that she spent high school and her first semester of college preparing for a career in music, convinced that science and mathematics weren’t for her.
Strings to Stats
Raven enjoyed and excelled in both STEM and humanities classes as a child. As she got older, her interest in STEM wasn’t encouraged, and she began to believe she “just wasn’t a science person.” She concentrated on music because she felt very supported in that pursuit. She played the viola—a stringed instrument slightly larger and deeper in tone than a violin—and performed in symphonies throughout high school.
Dr. Darden with her mentor, Dr. Philip Efron. Credit: Courtesy of Lyle Moldawer, Ph.D.
“I’m an African American woman from Memphis, Tennessee; you don’t see very many people like me in medicine or in science,” says Dijoia Darden, M.D. She’s working toward becoming an academic physician, which will allow her to treat patients, teach, and conduct research. “I’m hoping that as an academic physician, I can inspire other women, especially women of color, to pursue things they’re passionate about.”
A Path to Medicine
Dr. Darden was drawn to science from a young age, inspired by her microbiologist mother. She recalls that her mom often helped her create science fair projects, including one where she grew penicillin-producing bacteria taken from a lemon. Later on, during her high school summer breaks, Dr. Darden worked in a lab that studied how certain genes might contribute to cancer.
Dr. Ramos-Benítez researches interactions between pathogens—such as the viruses that cause Ebola and COVID-19—and their hosts. He’s also the founder and president of Ciencia en tus Manos (“Science in Your Hands”), a nonprofit organization that presents scientific information in Spanish and aims to provide a community to support the next generation of scientists.
Navajo students are contributing to public health efforts in diabetes, COVID-19, domestic violence, and maternal and child health through the Navajo Native American Research Center for Health (NARCH) Partnership. “Our goal is to really enhance the educational pathways available to Navajo students from high school to graduate school and beyond,” says Mark Bauer, Ph.D., a co-director of the Navajo NARCH Partnership and professor at Diné College—a tribal college on the Navajo Nation. (Diné means “the people” and is how Navajo people refer to themselves in their native language.)
As computers have advanced over the past few decades, researchers have been able to work with larger and more complex datasets than ever before. The science of using computers to investigate biological data is called bioinformatics, and it’s helping scientists make important discoveries, such as finding versions of genes that affect a person’s risk for developing various types of cancer. Many scientists believe that almost all biologists will use bioinformatics to some degree in the future.
However, bioinformatics isn’t always included in college biology programs, and many of today’s researchers received their training before bioinformatics was widely taught. To address these gaps, the bioinformatics cores of the five Northeast IDeA Networks of Biomedical Research Excellence (INBREs)—located in Maine, Rhode Island, Delaware, Vermont, and New Hampshire—have worked together to offer basic bioinformatics training to students and researchers. The collaboration started in 2009 with a project where researchers sequenced the genome of a fish called the little skate (Leucoraja erinacea) and used the data to develop trainings.
“What we’re trying to do is support the students’ attachment to being a scientist, to becoming part of the community,” says Douglas McMahon, Ph.D., the Stevenson Professor of Biological Sciences at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, and a co-director of Vanderbilt’s Maximizing Access to Research Careers (MARC) program. MARC focuses on undergraduates from diverse backgrounds who are in the biomedical sciences and plan to pursue a Ph.D. or M.D./Ph.D. degree after graduation.
For years, NIGMS has funded MARC programs throughout the United States and its territories; Vanderbilt joined their ranks in 2020. In June of that year, Dr. McMahon and Katherine Friedman, Ph.D., an associate professor of biological sciences at Vanderbilt and co-director of its MARC program, welcomed the initial cohort of six rising juniors. “MARC is a great opportunity because it focuses on helping people reach their Ph.D. goals who don’t really have others around them who know how to get there,” says Sim Plotkin, a molecular and cellular biology major. “For me, that’s really helpful because I’ll be the first in my family to graduate from college.”
During our Starting Your Own Lab webinar, attendees asked so many insightful questions that we ran out of time to respond to all of them. So we asked nine NIGMS early career investigators to tackle the most popular ones in short videos, which were featured on our social media. Now, you can watch the whole series on our YouTube channel.
“There’s knowledge to seize in Puerto Rico, and our program is letting students know that they have a really important role to play in solving local problems, that they are part of the solution,” says Isar P. Godreau, Ph.D., a researcher at the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) Cayey Institute of Interdisciplinary Research.
Dr. Franco-Ortiz (second from right) with students during a Coaching for Resiliency workshop session. Credit: Ivonne Bayron-Huertas, Ph.D.
Furthering NIGMS’ goals to create a highly skilled and diverse biomedical workforce, UPR IPERT provides undergraduate students from economically disadvantaged families with skills development and mentoring opportunities. One of the program’s main components is a series of Coaching for Resiliency workshops, which cover topics such as dealing with stress, managing family expectations, and handling financial challenges. A coach leads each group that includes about 10 to 15 first-year students and half as many second-year or higher students who act as peer mentors.
The coaching sessions help students connect with one another and with mentors. “One of the main accomplishments beyond the numbers is the power of networking,” says Dr. Franco-Ortiz. “The power of networking at different levels—from student mentors and faculty mentors at the UPR campus as well as abroad—is so crucial in terms of helping students who are looking for next steps.”
“Each person has something that they uniquely want to do, and as a mentor, you have to help uncover that,” says Angela Wandinger-Ness, Ph.D., the Victor and Ruby Hansen Surface Endowed Professor in Cancer Cell Biology and Clinical Translation in the department of pathology at the University of New Mexico (UNM) School of Medicine. “You have to put opportunities in front of them. You see what excites them, and then you steer them.” Dr. Wandinger-Ness is among this year’s honorees of the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring (PAESMEM).
Dr. Wandinger-Ness (left) with former undergraduate trainee Amber Rauch (center) and current Ph.D. trainee Melanie Rivera. Credit: Angela Wandinger-Ness, Ph.D.
The PAESMEM was established by the White House in 1995. This year, recipients were honored during a virtual awards ceremony. Each awardee received a grant from the National Science Foundation, which manages the PAESMEM on behalf of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
Looking for more virtual learning opportunities? NIGMS recently recorded a series of 14 webinars where experts shared their knowledge on topics from infectious disease modeling to pursuing a career in biomedical science. With the start of the 2020-2021 academic year, we’re highlighting a webinar that’s particularly relevant for our Biomedical Beat readers who are educators. You can check out the whole series on the NIGMS YouTube channel.