Kafui Dzirasa keeps an open-door policy in his busy NIH-supported lab at Duke University, Durham, NC. If his trainees have a quick question or just need to discuss an upcoming experiment, they’re always welcome to pull up a chair. The donuts are on him.
But when trainees pop by his office and see he’s out for the day, they have a good idea of what it means. Dzirasa has most likely traveled up to his native Maryland to volunteer as a mentor for students in a college program that will be forever near and dear to him. It’s the Meyerhoff Scholars Program at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC). Since its launch in 1988, this groundbreaking program has served as a needed pipeline to help increase diversity in the sciences—with more than 1,000 alumni, including Dzirasa, and 270 current students of all races.
Upon graduating from UMBC in 2001 as a Meyerhoff Scholar, Dzirasa was accepted into the M.D./Ph.D. Program at Duke with a focus in neurobiology. Dzirasa rarely had time to visit Baltimore 300 miles away, but he stayed in touch with everyone. After finishing his scientific and residency training and landing a position at Duke as an assistant professor, Dzirasa knew he had to give back. The Meyerhoff Scholars Program had helped him rise as a college track star, an Academic All-American, student body president, and, now, as an established scientist who is studying the brain and mental illness and frequently speaks on panels for public understanding of science.
Each time Dzirasa sets foot on the UMBC campus, he spends the day as an unpaid mentor meeting individually with more than a dozen students, especially those approaching graduation with an interest in pursuing an M.D./Ph.D. He talks students through everything from selecting classes and summer internships to balancing school and family.
When the students begin applying for grants or fellowships, he also offers constructive feedback on their personal statements. This past year alone, seven Meyerhoff scholars were accepted to MD/Ph.D. programs at Duke, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Case Western Reserve, University of Maryland, University of Washington, and Emory University.
Back in Durham, Dzirasa is always quick to answer an email or pick up the phone to offer reassurance. He says his goal is to help the students think through how to get from UMBC to becoming an NIH-funded scientist.
Each summer, Dzirasa also invites one or two of the UMBC students to spend time in his lab at Duke. In fact, three of the students he’s mentored decided to stay—they are now graduate students in his lab.
Dzirasa takes equal care in mentoring every single one of his students at Duke—and there have been many. Since 2012, he’s welcomed 37 trainees into his lab, ranging from undergrads to postdocs. He noted that the majority of his current and past students are women or underrepresented minorities.
On the national stage, I can vouch for the fact that Dzirasa has always been willing to provide advice to NIH on its diversity training programs. He has been a frequent participant and thought leader in workshops that we have convened to focus on successful recruitment and retention of scientists from groups that are traditionally underrepresented in the biomedical research workforce.
How does he find time to do all these things while running a busy lab? Dzirasa says it helps that he’s always been someone who works best when he’s busy. During those daytrips to Baltimore, he finds time to work on the plane or into the evenings once back at home. Most importantly, he says, it’s about deciding who you want to be in this world and building everything else around that vision.
Dzirasa says that science stands to benefit when talent is found and developed in people coming from diverse backgrounds and circumstances. For him, he says, developing people and seeing them succeed is “as important as the experiments that I do.” Like the lines from a Langston Hughes poem that he and other Meyerhoff Scholars often stand and recite: “Hold fast to dreams/For if dreams die/Life is a broken-winged bird/That cannot fly.”
Video: Dr. Kafui Dzirasa: A Black Man in a White Coat (Duke University School of Medicine, Durham, NC)
Dzirasa Lab (Duke University, Durham, NC)
Meyerhoff Scholars Program (University of Maryland, Baltimore County)