August 2010

Overcoming Isolation in Science

Minorities in science often have a hard time finding other minorities to connect with. The ASBMB Minority Affairs Committee has launched several initiatives in an effort to eliminate some of this isolation.


minoirtyFor many underrepresented minorities, pursuing a career in science, technology, engineering or mathematics is often accompanied by isolation from their own culture or demographic group. Minority students frequently find themselves as one of a very few of their kind in a classroom, and, as their classes increase in scientific and mathematical complexity, they routinely become the lone survivor. These trends continue in graduate school and beyond, where minorities may be the sole representative of their demographic group in a lab, building, department or during week-long scientific gatherings in isolated venues.

The infrequent contact between underrepresented minority scientists in similar or complementary disciplines prevents the development of relationships that might prove beneficial while navigating the terrain of a scientific career. This is unfortunate, because there are various experiences and challenges that generally are unique to minority scientists. Avenues that allow minorities to share their experiences and discuss best practices for surmounting challenges may prove fruitful in fostering success, particularly among young individuals who are just starting their scientific careers.

To this end, the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Minority Affairs Committee has established a minority scientist network called the “Partnership for Diversity.” Anyone interested in diversity issues can join on the MAC website. Network members receive updates on funding initiatives and summer research programs, information about scientific outreach, news about special functions— particularly those associated with diversity issues— at the ASBMB annual meeting and notices on obtaining or becoming a scientific mentor.

The network fostered a wonderful turnout at the 2010 annual meeting minority scientist networking reception, and, we hope that the registry will be used to identify future minority speakers for ASBMB and other scientific society meetings.


Another initiative of particular note is the recently created ASBMB MAC research spotlight page which highlights the careers of minority scientists. The profiles also allow the scientists to share some of the challenges they faced in their scientific development and their strategies for surmounting them.

To date, four minority scientists have been highlighted: John Alderete, professor of microbiology and associate director of outreach and development at the School of Molecular Biosciences at Washington State University-Pulman; Marion B. Sewer, associate professor in the Skaggs School of Pharmacy & Pharmaceutical Sciences at the University of California, San Diego; Leticia Marquez-Magana, professor of biology and founding member of the Health Equity Institute at San Francisco State University; and Aguilera Renato, professor of biology and director of the biology graduate program at University of Texas, El Paso.

Congratulations to the newest MAC committee member, Marion B. Sewer, associate professor in the Skaggs School of Pharmacy & Pharmaceutical Sciences at the University of California, San Diego.

Each spotlight offers candid and inspirational insight for budding minority scientists and will most likely resonate with those who have been around for a while. The similarities between the stories are fascinating, especially because each scientist hails from a different beginning. One common theme is that setbacks are to be expected; the key, however, is to not allow setbacks to engender self-doubt and to not confuse unpreparedness with lack of intelligence. This may have particular relevance to budding minority scientists who may lack the exposure to many of the sophisticated scientific concepts and laboratory experiences that their majority scientist peers have. One reflection by Sewer that had particular resonance was the reminder that scientists constantly are evaluated on a number of different levels by a great number of people, and that we shouldn’t take comments and criticisms personally.

The ASBMB MAC hopes that these initiatives, and many others in the works, will serve as a launching pad for a fruitful exchange of experiences, ideas and best practices, particularly with the net flux of information toward young people, which will foster success and lead to an increase in the number of minority scientists at all levels.

Squire J. Booker ( is an associate professor of chemistry and of biochemistry and molecular biology at The Pennsylvania State University.

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