Diversifying the scientific workforce with IMAGE

Published November 01 2016

The 2016 IMAGE workshop helped participants improve their grant-writing skills and provided career development opportunities.

The American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Minority Affairs Committee has a longstanding commitment to diversifying the workforce engaged in life-science research. Federally funded efforts to increase the number of underrepresented minority, or URM, undergraduates who pursue biomedical graduate training have been very successful in promoting the matriculation of these students into doctoral programs. In fact, the National Institute of General Medical Sciences Postbaccaulaureate Research Education Program matriculates 65 percent of its participants into Ph.D. programs; of these participants, 63 percent complete their Ph.D.s (1).

However, the growth in the number of doctorates awarded to URM students has not led to a commensurate number of URM individuals in tenure-track faculty positions or in higher-level administrative positions within academia. In fact, the number of URM STEM faculty members in tenure-track positions in the U.S. staggers below 10 percent. It is even lower at the rank of professor. We still need innovative approaches to address critical junctures in the biomedical career path where minorities drop out of the academic pipeline. Recent studies clearly have illustrated racial disparities in securing funding from the National Institutes of Health (2).

Based on an exploration into the barriers that URM investigators encounter when competing for federal funding, the MAC has been working on developing mentoring approaches to address these needs. As part of this effort, the MAC developed the Interactive Mentoring Activities for Grantsmanship Enhancement program, known as IMAGE, with generous support from the National Science Foundation. The program is designed to increase the number of federally funded minority faculty members as well as faculty members at minority-serving institutions to build a more inclusive scientific enterprise.

This long-term goal is being addressed by providing assistant professors and senior postdoctoral scientists with intensive mentoring on grantsmanship skills and career-development strategies. Although the program is open to everyone, we place particular focus on URM faculty members and faculty members at minority-serving institutions. The IMAGE program has a three-pronged approach:

At an annual workshop, mentors who have a demonstrated track record of securing federal funding share best practices on proposal preparation. They provide real-time feedback on potential specific aims. One-on-one guidance assists with proposal preparation and submission. A web-based interactive forum allows for the dissemination and exchange of career-development resources.

Data from the first three years of the program (2013, 2014 and 2015) indicate that 70 percent of participants felt that the feedback about their research objectives was likely to improve their grant-writing skills, and 80 percent found the interaction with the mentors valuable. Significantly, 44 percent of the 2013 cohort, 53 percent of the 2014 cohort and 39 percent of the 2015 cohort successfully secured federal funding, with 45 percent of these grant recipients being URM faculty members or faculty from minority-serving institutions. These data provide further support for the importance of mentoring in STEM disciplines with culturally competent role models. Given that 50 percent of the workshop mentors are URM faculty members, our outcomes emphasize the pivotal role that interactions between junior and senior URM faculty members can play in career development. These positive outcomes have provided the impetus for the 2016 grant writing workshop component of IMAGE that recently occurred in July. The workshop included the participation of several members of the MAC, including Suzanne Barbour at the University of Georgia, Squire Booker at the Pennsylvania State University, Sonia Flores at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, Christopher Meyer at the California State University and me. Booker, Flores and I were the workshop co-organizers.

This year’s applications were solicited via advertisements on the ASBMB website and diversity mailing lists as well as through letters to department chairs. Application materials included a summary of the candidate’s research interests and a letter of support from the department chair; these were reviewed with several goals in mind. First, we sought to identify projects that were well rationalized and were within the scope of the ASBMB’s interests. Second, we aimed to have 30 to 50 percent of the mentees be URM senior postdoctoral fellows and assistant professors or non-URM senior postdoctoral fellows and assistant professors from minority-serving institutions. Finally, we aimed for gender and geographical diversity. These selection criteria resulted in a dynamic cohort.

The workshop agenda included presentations from program officers from the NSF (Christopher Meyer and Wilson Francisco) and the NIH (Vernon Anderson from NIGMS). We also conducted an NSF proposal review panel and held presentations on the elements of a successful proposal, such as how to respond to reviewers in proposal resubmissions; how the NSF and NIH differ with respect to funding; and general faculty-life issues, including managing productive collaborations. The most significant portion of the three-day workshop experience was dedicated to 15- to 20-minute presentations from all mentees. The workshop participants provided an overview of a potential research proposal, which included a discussion of the research area, the central hypothesis to be addressed, preliminary data, experimental approaches, and future directions in a low-risk and safe-space peer-review setting. Presentations were clustered based on research topic (e.g., molecular biology, enzymology). Mentors and other attendees provided feedback and suggestions. Examples of mentors’ suggestions included providing more preliminary data, suggesting collaborators, focusing the research plan, and targeting another funding agencies (such as the Department of Defense or the Research Corporation). Additionally, the participants received guidance on how to integrate feedback from the workshop into proposal revisions during a presentation by a recent workshop attendee and CAREER award winner, Rick Page at Miami University.

In addition to networking opportunities, a final component of the workshop was a panel discussion on balancing research, teaching and service, professional ethics, research ethics (led by William Trenkle from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Research Integrity), broader impacts (led by Jory Weintraub from Duke University), and managing collaborations and navigating departmental politics. The various types of programmatic activities helped mentees interact with mentors and NIH and NSF funding officials. Mentees also got opportunities to interact with each other. In the future, mentees also will have an invaluable opportunity to receive guidance with proposal writing and revisions from ASBMB members with expertise in the given area. Please contact us if you have an interest in mentoring these bright young scientists.

We conclude that the use of a multipronged approach to providing opportunities for career development, networking and scientific exchange is critical to diversifying the STEM workforce. The members of the MAC and I use this article as a call to action for broadening the future of the life-science enterprise.


References

  1. Hall, A. et al. Analysis of Scholar Outcomes for the NIGMS Postbaccalaureate Research Education Program (2015).
  2. Ginther, D. Science 333, 1015–1019 (2011).
Takita Felder SumterTakita Felder Sumter is a professor of biochemistry in the Department of Chemistry, Physics and Geology at Winthrop University and chair of the ASBMB minority affairs committee. The IMAGE grant honors the legacy of the late Marion Sewer and currently is being led by remaining members of the working group.