We just finished Hispanic history month, and, in this spirit, the newly energized American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Minority Affairs Committee is meeting the challenges of the 21st century head-on. Although underrepresented minorities and disadvantaged students comprise at least 30 percent of the U.S. population, the percentage of graduate degrees awarded to these underserved populations is less than one-third of that number. This is even worse when you look at the number of senior faculty with diverse backgrounds. Thus, there is a dearth of qualified diverse mentors who understand the hurdles faced by underrepresented students. Exposing students to hands-on research and giving them access to senior investigators can increase their interest in pursuing a research career, and, the earlier the intervention, the more of a chance we have to capture their attention.
ASBMB is playing a proactive role in addressing these disparities. We recognize that the best way to do this is by starting early; therefore, we have partnered with organizations that cater to students from diverse backgrounds, such as the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science and the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students.
The SACNAS Meeting
ASBMB donated money and sponsored an information booth at the SACNAS meeting in Dallas in October. The undergraduate and graduate students who stopped by the booth learned about our society and were, in many instances, surprised to find out that we publish the Journal of Biological Chemistry. Our basic missions of support for science education at all levels and promoting the diversity of individuals entering the scientific work force were in full display at the meeting. As part of our commitment, undergraduate students were offered free memberships that provide online access to all three of our journals and a print subscription to ASBMB Today. In addition, we invited all undergraduate ASBMB members to participate in our upcoming annual meeting and 14th annual undergraduate student poster competition in April in Anaheim, Calif.
This past spring, SACNAS sponsored a leadership institute in Washington at the headquarters of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The objective was to develop the next generation of leaders who will become role models for the upcoming generations. The alumni from that institute reunited on the first day of the SACNAS meeting and participated in breakout sessions that addressed such issues as navigating the promotions process, negotiating a recruitment package and taking chances on careers. Those leaders also were highlighted throughout the meeting and had a large presence at the closing ceremonies.
Graduate Experiences for Multicultural Students
|Graduate Experiences for Multicultural Students participants took part in an intense eight-week research experience at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus.
I was one of the institute’s alumni and, as a new MAC member, hope to use my experiences from the institute to help develop pipeline programs and partnerships that address disparities in representation. Currently, I direct a short-term training program for diverse and underrepresented students at the University of Colorado Denver School of Medicine, funded by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. This program, called “Graduate Experiences for Multicultural Students,” pairs students from diverse and disadvantaged backgrounds from around the U.S. with research mentors. The program has been in existence in various iterations for approximately 20 years, sponsored by both the National Institutes of Health and John Freed, dean of the graduate school at the University of Colorado Denver.
The program focuses on promoting diversity in undergraduate student populations and supporting and stimulating career development for those who study cardiovascular and pulmonary disorders. Students typically arrive at the beginning of the summer and spend eight to nine weeks engaged in an intensive research experience in the laboratories of several medical school mentors. During this time, they also participate in brown bag seminars covering topics such as ethics in science and medicine, how to put together an effective oral or written presentation and graduate school admission. At the end of the summer, students present their work orally and as written scientific manuscripts. Faculty judges then choose the best presentations. The program also defrays the costs of travel to a national scientific meeting. GEMS students have presented at SACNAS, ABRCMS and the Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections, as well as annual meetings for the Society for Free Radical Biology and Medicine, the American Thoracic Society, the Endocrine Society and the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology.
In 2006, 13 students were admitted to the program: 10 were funded by the NIH grant, one was funded by the graduate school, one was funded by an institutional Research Initiative for Scientific Enhancement program and one was funded with a FASEB grant. Nine of those students attended either the ABRCMS or SACNAS meeting (or both), one presented his work orally at CROI, one presented at the SFRBM meeting that year and one received an award for her work at ABRCMS. The student who presented at CROI originally had medical school as his sole career choice, but, after participation in GEMS, he decided that he loved research so much that he is now a graduate student in biochemistry and cell biology at Rice University. In 2008, 13 students participated in GEMS: five are in graduate school and credit GEMS with opening their eyes to research as a viable career. All of the GEMS student participants were from underrepresented groups including Hispanic/Latinos, African-Americans, Native Pacific-Islanders, Native Americans, the hearing-impaired, first-generation college attendees, low-income families and students from rural areas.
It is my hope that ASBMB eventually will participate in the GEMS program, sponsoring students interested in biochemistry and molecular biology. This would allow ASBMB to use the GEMS infrastructure without having to create a program de novo. GEMS would benefit, too, by having additional research areas for students to explore. You can find out more about GEMS and other summer research opportunities by visiting the ASBMB Web site.
Sonia C. Flores (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a member of the ASBMB Minority Affairs Committee and a professor of medicine at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center.