Lack of Diversity in Graduate Biomedical Research Education - Higher Education

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Lack of Diversity in Graduate Biomedical Research Education

by Andrew Bean and Marenda Wilson-Pham

Dr. Marenda Wilson-Pham

Dr. Marenda Wilson-Pham

Biomedical research has played an integral role in improving health and life expectancy. These research accomplishments depend on talented trainees and investigators attacking scientific problems from multiple perspectives. Unfortunately, the diversity of the scientific workforce has not kept pace with our understanding of its importance.

While progress has been made toward closing the gender gap, biomedical research continues to have a lackluster record with regard to the diversity of trainees and principal investigators and we lose many underrepresented minority (URM) trainees early in the ‘pipeline’ from student to investigator.

The importance of increasing the diversity of biomedical researchers is clear. The scientific community and funding agencies recognize that diversity drives innovation and creativity, and have initiated programs to recruit diverse applicants, build “pipelines” and enhance retention.

While trainees that have high undergraduate GPAs, high GRE scores and previous research experience are coveted because of their potential for success, other paths into graduate school should not be discounted. Our combined experiences as a graduate student, faculty member, mentor, recruiter, graduate school administrator and admissions committee member have given us a unique perspective into where holes early in the ‘pipeline’ may lie. We would like to highlight some issues that may underlie low numbers of URMs entering graduate programs in biomedical research.

Demand for flawless applicants

Despite the recent accomplishments made in biomedical research, flat or declining budgets due to economic and political concerns have strained federal discretionary funds available for research. The result is a contraction in exploratory research with short-term reward and “sure thing” research taking priority. This trickles down to the student wishing to pursue a graduate education because of the need to be conservative. This also drives demand for perfect applicants that have extensive research experience and perfect scores.

Unfortunately, this demand may have the unintended consequence of decreasing the number of free thinking/creative-type students, and more importantly, diverse students, both of whom may not have “perfect applications” threatening the goal of increasing diversity.


What is the perfect applicant? If the answer is a successful student that completes their training, learns the scientific method and contributes to our body of knowledge, then how does the graduate admissions committee decide whom to admit? Quantitative and qualitative measures of past performance appear to be important, but which are predictive of future success? Despite the 40+ years’ worth of data on the GRE as a poor predictor of outcomes, and inhibitory to the entry of URMs into science, it is still used as a major determinant of admissions and a benchmark of applicants’ abilities to become successful scientists.

Dr. Andrew Bean

Dr. Andrew Bean

Why is this happening? We believe that it is a combination of (1) an unwillingness to concede that the GRE is discriminatory, (2) time that committees, composed of overcommitted faculty, have to review the merit of applicants, (3) unconscious bias and (4) desire on the part of schools to admit high-scoring applicants, positioning themselves to compete for fellowship and federal-training grant dollars. If diversity is truly valued, difficult decisions about the role of standardized tests in the admissions process must be made by educational stakeholders.

Recommendation letters and research experience

The quality/amount of research experience an applicant possesses is a major factor in the graduate admissions decision. However, with strong emphasis placed on grades and test scores, the importance of outstanding recommendation letters attesting to research potential is often overlooked/undervalued.

While some graduate schools have begun holistically reviewing applicants, following the initial scoring rubric/triage, recommendation letters become critical. URMs can suffer at this stage because: (1) The importance of the recommendation letter is not clear to the applicant and (2) belief that acquiring a recommendation letter from a mentor at a name brand institution or flashy lab is a “slam dunk.”

URMs are often unaware that recommenders are asked to rate applicants against all students they have trained. Thus, no matter how hard the applicant worked, their ranking by mentors running labs filled with experts is likely average. This average recommendation letter is not judged favorably by admissions committees seeking applicants ranked in the top 10th percentile.

Hence, while it is imperative that recommenders be familiar with an applicant’s research abilities, they should be chosen wisely. Letters from professors applicants know well may be received more favorably than those from professors at a high-profile institution, where they worked with lab members and had little contact with letter-writing professors.

Professional recruiters vs. graduate representatives

From the standpoint of the educational institution, there is value in having professional recruiters answer general, technical and administrative questions. However, essential knowledge of the training process and programs/outcomes from personal experience is priceless in diversity recruitment, and can be the difference between successful recruitment and losing a great candidate.

With the relatively low numbers of URMs entering the field of biomedical research, losing one candidate is a significant loss to any institution.

For example, while giving a recruitment seminar/application workshop at an HBCU, we were asked about areas of study in biomedical research that aligned with a potential applicant’s interest in chemical cosmetics. This potential applicant had spoken with several professional recruiters from competing institutions and was told that no program matched the applicant’s interest at the institution represented by the recruiter likely because the recruiters were looking for an exact match. We were able to provide an answer (a pharmacology program/laboratory) based on an understanding of research content. We have experienced variations on this theme on multiple occasions and have wondered about the numbers of potential applicants that may be misinformed because of a lack of understanding of the research focus of labs within each institution.

The graduate admissions process shapes the “pipeline” that can ultimately affect the diversity of the research community. This key point of entry has a narrow opening and without careful monitoring can inhibit entry of URMs into biomedical research. Thus, logical processes that are data driven and constantly re-evaluated could have a broad impact on the diversity of perspectives with which we try to solve scientific problems.

Dr. Andrew Bean is a professor in the Department of Neurobiology & Anatomy and Pediatrics at UTHealth and M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. He is also associate dean at the University of Texas Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences at Houston where he is focused on recruitment/retention of underrepresented minorities and career development and is actively engaged in biomedical research, teaching and student career advising from matriculation through initial career appointment.

Dr. Marenda Wilson-Pham is a program manager and alumna of the University of Texas Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences at Houston where she works with Dr. Andrew Bean in diversity recruitment/retention, career development and advising.