Fellowship Program Opens Doors for Minority Researchers

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by Dana Forde

Dr. Cherié Butts, a researcher and drug reviewer in the Office of Biotechnology Products at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, enjoys her job as a scientist so much that she often prepares for the next day’s projects the night before.

“Some experiments can take three to four days and some can take weeks,” she says. Butts, whose research focus is to decipher how steroid hormones modify immune responses during disease in an effort to develop better therapeutic strategies, feels that one of the few things lacking in her satisfying career is more colleagues of color.

According to a 2006 National Science Foundation study, African-Americans, Hispanics and American Indians make up only 2.65 percent, 3.53 percent, and 0.59 percent, respectively, of life sciences academics at four-year institutions. Precise numbers are not available, but advocates agree minorities are also underrepresented as industry researchers who work outside of academia. Students from these underrepresented communities sometimes leave graduate school or post-doctoral programs because they feel socially isolated or unable to find mentors.

The lack of biologists and other scientists from these ethnic groups is a threat to America’s public health and national economy. Many diseases like AIDS, juvenile diabetes and hypertension are running rampant in these communities. Finding effective treatments will require scientists who understand their patients’ culture and lifestyles.  

Butts, who earned degrees at Johns Hopkins University and the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center/UT Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, believes her career began to soar when she was chosen as an inaugural Keystone Symposia Fellow. The program allowed her to establish key relationships with other professionals and researchers in her discipline. Based in Colorado, the Keystone Symposia in Molecular and Cellular Biology is a nonprofit organization that sees itself as “a  catalyst for the advancement of biomedical and life sciences by connecting scientists within and across disciplines at conferences and workshops.” 

The goal is to create a scholarly, yet informal, social environment conducive to information exchange, generation of new ideas and acceleration of applications that benefit society. For more than three decades, Keystone has organized on average 55 international scientific conferences per year on subjects ranging from cancer and infectious diseases to genomics and biochemistry. It sponsored, for example, the first open research meeting on AIDS in the 1980s. Hundreds of graduate students, post-doctoral fellows and early-career scientists flock to these meetings for the unique opportunity to cross paths and build relationships with world-renowned scientists presenting peer-reviewed research.

The conferences are where research agendas are set and careers can be made, and Keystone has pledged to bring more African-American, American Indian/Alaska native, Hispanic and native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander scientists and researchers into the fold. 

Butts recalls that her first Keystone meeting in February 2007 provided her with access to research and opportunities that would normally be out of reach for a beginning scientist. “It’s like a small meeting with the giants in your field,” she says, noting that the chance to publicly ask research-related questions made her more visible and allowed her to collaborate with leading experts.

The Keystone Symposia is working to improve the participation of, and focus on, minorities in the life sciences field through efforts that include providing scholarships that enable budding scientists to attend meetings. It also maintains partnerships with organizations such as the Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS). Its future goals include developing a nationwide database to connect underrepresented minority professionals in the field.

Dr. Laina King, director of Keystone’s Diversity in Life Sciences Programs, says diversity is a critical component of making sure the nation maintains its preeminence in the life sciences field.

“We are at a point where we need to bring together the best and the brightest of talent from a wide variety of intellectual perspectives. And the only way that you can do that is to realize that many cultures have been left out of that intellectual research endeavor,” says King. “We need that broader range of perspective, because when you’re talking about research you’re talking about solving problems. We are not talking about excluding the majority culture perspective. We’re simply saying that it’s not as broad as it needs to be.”

The conferences and seminars offered by Keystone are not just concerned with research. They also offer both formal and informal lessons in social skills and networking. “Many times, majority culture scientists have gone to prep schools … they’ve grown up being around scientists or they’ve been used to listening to their parents have conversations about it,” adds King. “More often, minority students have not learned or had exposure to these things.”

Keystone, which puts on conferences in retreat-like settings in countries such as Canada, China, Ireland, Tanzania and Uganda, is among the largest and most well-respected scientific conference organizers. Others include Gordon Research Conferences, which provides a forum for research in the biological, chemical and physical sciences, and Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, which provides courses as well as conferences.

As part of its larger diversity initiative, Keystone officials arrange small, theme-specific sessions for up-and-coming scientists during some of these conferences such as “Meet the Speaker” and “How to Get the Most Out of Small Meetings.” Some meetings include seminars on mentoring and workshops on tenure and tenure-track appointments.

A cornerstone of Keystone’s diversity mission is the Keystone Symposia Fellows Program, which is designed for early-career scientists who demonstrate their commitment to increasing diversity in the life and biomedical sciences. As part of the program, fellows experience a “behind-the-scenes” opportunity to interact closely with the Scientific Advisory Board, a powerful group of scientists that leads the charge in setting the future research agenda. Fellows also participate in “shadowing experiences” with conference organizers and Keystone staff. 

These initiatives, King says, represent Keystone’s commitment to increase the number of women and scientists of color who participate in the organization’s conferences as speakers, organizers, and workshop presenters. Keystone also offers scholarships to minority attendees to help offset the costs of conference registration, transportation and lodging, which can run several thousands of dollars. Earlier this year, the organization announced its receipt of a $1.37 million, five-year MARC (Minority Access to Research Careers) Ancillary Training Activities grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). These funds are poised to assist the organization in boosting its diversity efforts.

King urges young scientists to grasp the fact that attendance at the types of professional meetings offered by Keystone should be considered mandatory.

“A lot of networking is done at these conferences. You meet people you have been reading research about and then you learn how to interact with people and pose questions,” she says. “This is where you get exposure.”

Dr. De’Broski Herbert is another African-American scientist who benefited from Keystone as a fellow. Herbert, an assistant professor at the Cincinnati Children’s Research Foundation, says his undergraduate experience at Xavier University solidified his intent to pursue research. But he says attending his first Keystone Symposia helped him understand how scientists use social and professional networks as a tool for advancing their careers.

“The Keystone Symposia just blew me away. That’s where I interacted with several top-notch internationally recognized scientists. At that point I realized this is where I want to be,” says Herbert, whose research is focused on the immunology of parasitic diseases. “I left with the feeling that at Keystone meetings I could get to know people and that I could have the chance to have a one-on-one interaction with leaders in the field.”

Dr. Andrew Robertson, Keystone’s chief scientific officer, says efforts to enhance the contributions of underrepresented scientists and researchers accelerate the goal of making science more inclusive while also pushing research forward. He adds that science is “a community endeavor” and that diversifying participation provides an added benefit for many majority scientists who may have had limited experience interacting with people of color.

Dr. Clifton Poodry, director of the Division of Minority Opportunities in Research at NIH, says the internationally recognized prestige of Keystone’s various research initiatives makes the organization a leader in the scientific arena. “The organization’s effort to provide opportunities and get more people into the mix, both to help them become successful in what they do but also to provide diversity, is important … not just for minority students, not just for minority faculty, (and) not just for the minority community, but for the country. … I think it is a win-win opportunity,” Poodry says.

He adds that Keystone is a partner in the larger goal of diversifying educational and training settings so that people of color have access to role models at every step of their educational and professional careers. “People often make judgments of future careers based on who they see there,” Poodry says. Officials across scientific disciplines agree that mentoring is a key component in helping to increase the number of minority students who pursue scientific research careers.

Still, the shortage of minority scientists is particularly troubling for Butts, the single mother of a teenage son, who encourages other practitioners and minority students to overcome their feelings of isolation in professional and social settings.  The benefits of pursuing a career in research, she says, outweigh the sacrifices.

“I want students to know that it is possible,” she adds. “It is critical that we understand our environment because if we don’t understand the dynamics of how the system works then we are unfortunately at a disadvantage.”

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