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STEM Education and Training Builds Diversity Among Next Generation of Biomedical Scientists

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cartoon scientists working together
Credit: National Institute of General Medical Sciences, NIH

Nelson Mandela said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” At NIH’s National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS), we believe that educating future and current scientists from diverse backgrounds benefits the entire biomedical research enterprise, changing the world through advances in disease diagnosis, treatment, and prevention.

As the summer winds down and students and educators embark on a new school year, I thought I’d highlight some of our educational resources that complement science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) curricula. I’d also like to draw your attention to training programs designed to inspire and support research careers.

STEM Programs and Resources from NIH

The NIGMS Science Education Partnership Awards (SEPAs) are resources that provide opportunities for pre-K-12 students from underserved communities to access STEM educational resources. It lets them aspire to careers in health research.

The SEPA grants in almost every state support innovative, research-based, science education programs, furthering NIGMS’ mission to ensure a strong and diverse research ecosystem. Resources generated through SEPAs are free, mapped to state and national teaching standards for STEM, and rigorously evaluated for effectiveness. These resources include mobile laboratories, health exhibits in museums and science centers, educational resources for students, and professional development for teachers.

One SEPA program at Purdue University College of Veterinary Medicine, West Lafayette, IN, pairs veterinarians from their nationwide “superhero” League of VetaHumanz with local schools or community centers that support underserved students. These professional veterinarians, also from diverse backgrounds, strive to help young students from underrepresented groups envision future careers caring for animals.

Another SEPA program at Baylor University, Waco, TX, is increasing access to chemistry labs for high schoolers with blindness. It uses a robotic reactor with enhanced safety features to eliminate many dangers of synthetic organic chemistry. Students with blindness can control the robot to conduct experiments in a similar fashion to their sighted counterparts. The robot is housed within an airtight, blast-proof glove box, and it can perform common chemistry operations such as weighing and dispensing solid or liquid reagents; delivering solvents; combining reagents with the solvents; and stirring, heating, or cooling the reaction mixtures.

As noted in the 2021 report from the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, “equity and inclusion are fundamental prerequisites for making high-quality STEM education accessible to all Americans and will maximize the creative capacity of tomorrow’s workforce.” I believe this statement falls right in line with the spirit of SEPAs.

New NIH-Wide STEM Teaching Resources Website

To help educators find free science education content, we recently launched a STEM teaching resources website. It includes NIH-wide teaching materials as well as those from SEPA programs for grades K-12, categorized by different health and research topic areas.

The NIGMS free educational resource Pathways, designed for educators and aspiring scientists in grades 6-12, is one of many resources available through the STEM website. Each issue of Pathways provides information about basic biomedical science and research careers and includes a student magazine, teacher lesson plans, and interactives such as Kahoot! classroom quizzes. Our most recent vaccine science issue teaches students how COVID-19 vaccines work in the body and introduces them to scientists dedicated to vaccine research.

Programs for Early Career Scientists

While SEPA grants focus on future scientists (and their educators) in grades pre-K-12, NIGMS also has a robust research training portfolio for those at the undergraduate through postdoctoral and professional levels. These programs aim to enhance diversity by engaging and training scientists from diverse backgrounds early in their careers.

At the undergraduate level, programs like Maximizing Access to Research Careers (MARC) provide students from diverse backgrounds with mentorship and career development. We recently highlighted the MARC program at Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN, on our Biomedical Beat blog showing the program’s impact on students.

At the other end of the spectrum, our Maximizing Opportunities for Scientific and Academic Independent Careers (MOSAIC) program helps promising postdoctoral researchers from diverse backgrounds transition into independent faculty careers. The MOSAIC scholars become part of a career development program to expand their professional networks and gain additional skills and mentoring through scientific societies. You can learn more about each of these impressive early career scientists on our MOSAIC Scholars webpages.

At NIGMS, we’re dedicated to increasing the diversity of the biomedical research workforce. Through STEM content and outreach, as well as scientist training resources, we focus on emphasizing diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility. This holds true with funding and programming for current scientists, and in the inspiration and training of future scientists.

Links:

STEM Teaching Resources Website (NIH)

Science Education Partnership Award (SEPA) (NIH)

SEPA Award (National Institute of General Medical Sciences/NIH)

The League of VetaHumanz: Encouraging Kids to Use Their Powers for Good! (Biomedical Beat Blog/NIGMS)

Pathways (NIGMS)

Maximizing Access to Research Careers (MARC) Awards (NIGMS)

Catching Up With ReMARCable Vanderbilt Graduates (Biomedical Beat Blog/NIGMS)

Maximizing Opportunities for Scientific and Academic Independent Careers (MOSAIC) (NIGMS)

Note: Dr. Lawrence Tabak, who performs the duties of the NIH Director, has asked the heads of NIH’s Institutes and Centers (ICs) to contribute occasional guest posts to the blog to highlight some of the interesting science that they support and conduct. This is the 15th in the series of NIH IC guest posts that will run until a new permanent NIH director is in place.


Tackling Complex Scientific Questions Requires a Team Approach

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A group of people are hand in hand in a spiral. Team Science
Credit: Getty Images/melitas

During the COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen unprecedented, rapid scientific collaboration, as experts around the world in discrete, previously disconnected fields, have found ways to collaborate to face a common cause. For example, physicists helped respiratory specialists understand how virus particles could spread in air, leading to improved mitigation strategies. Specialists in cardiovascular science, neuroscience, immunology, and other fields are now working together to understand and address Long COVID. Over the past two years, we have also seen remarkable international sharing of epidemiological data and information on effects of vaccines.

Science is increasingly a team activity, which is true for many fields, not just biomedicine. The professional diversity of research teams reflects the increased complexity of the questions science is called upon to answer. This is especially obvious in the study of the brain, which is the most complex system known to us.

The NIH’s Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies® (BRAIN) Initiative, with the goal of vastly enhancing neuroscience through new technologies, includes research teams with neuroscientists, engineers, mathematicians, physicists, data scientists, ethicists, and more. Nearly half (47 percent) of grant awards have multiple principal investigators.

Besides the BRAIN Initiative, other multi-institute NIH research projects are applying team science to complex research questions, such as those related to neurodevelopment, addiction, and pain. The Helping to End Addiction Long-term® Initiative, or NIH HEAL Initiative®, created a team-based research framework to advance promising pain therapeutics quickly to clinical testing.

In the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) study, which is led by NIDA in close partnership with NIH’s National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), and other NIH institutes, 21 research centers are collecting behavioral, biospecimen, and neuroimaging data from 11,878 children from age 10 through their teens. Teams led by experts in adolescent psychiatry, developmental psychology, and pediatrics interview participants and their families. These experts then gather a battery of health metrics from psychological, cognitive, sociocultural, and physical assessments, including collection and analysis of various kinds of biospecimens (blood, saliva). Further, experts in biophysics gather information on the structure and function of participants’ brains every two years.

A similar study of young children in the first decade of life beginning with the prenatal period, the HEALthy Brain and Child Development (HBCD) study, supported by HEAL, NIDA, and several other NIH institutes and centers, is now underway at 25 research sites across the country. A range of scientific specialists, similar to that in the ABCD study, is involved in this effort. In this case, they are aided by experts in obstetric care and in infant neuroimaging.

For both of these studies, teams of data scientists validate and curate all the information generated and make it available to researchers across the world. This makes it possible to investigate complex questions such as human neurodevelopmental diversity and the effects of genes and social experiences and their relation to mental health. More than half of the publications using ABCD data have been authored by non-ABCD investigators taking advantage of the open-access format.

Yet, institutions that conduct and fund science—including NIH—have been slow to support and reward collaboration. Because authorship and funding are so important in tenure and promotion decisions at universities, for example, an individual’s contribution to larger, multi-investigator projects on which they may not be the grantee or lead author on a study publication may carry less weight.

For this reason, early-career scientists may be particularly reluctant to collaborate on team projects. Among the recommendations of a 2015 National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) report, Enhancing the Effectiveness of Team Science, was that universities and other institutions should find effective ways to give credit for team-based work to assist promotion and tenure committees.

The strongest teams will be diverse in other respects, not just scientific expertise. Besides more actively fostering productive collaborations across disciplines, NIH is making a more concerted effort to promote racial equity and inclusivity in our research workforce, both through the NIH UNITE Initiative and through Institute-specific initiatives like NIDA’s Racial Equity Initiative.

To promote diversity, inclusivity, and accessibility in research, the BRAIN Initiative recently added a requirement in most of its funding opportunity announcements (FOAs) that has applicants include a Plan for Enhancing Diverse Perspectives (PEDP) in the proposed research. The PEDPs are evaluated and scored during the peer review as part of the holistic considerations used to inform funding decisions. These long-overdue measures will not only ensure that NIH-funded science is more diverse, but they are also important steps toward studying and addressing social determinants of health and the health disparities that exist for so many conditions.

Increasingly, scientific discovery is as much about exploring new connections between different kinds of researchers as it is about finding new relationships among different kinds of scientific databases. The challenges before us are great—ending the COVID pandemic, finding a solution to the addiction and overdose crisis, and so many others—and increased collaboration between scientists will give us the greatest chance to successfully overcome these challenges.

Links:

Nora Volkow’s Blog (National Institute on Drug Abuse/NIH)

Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development Study

Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies® (BRAIN) Initiative (NIH)

Racial Equity Initiative (NIDA)

Note: Acting NIH Director Lawrence Tabak has asked the heads of NIH’s Institutes and Centers (ICs) to contribute occasional guest posts to the blog to highlight some of the interesting science that they support and conduct. This is the 13th in the series of NIH IC guest posts that will run until a new permanent NIH director is in place.


Unlocking Potential in The Next Generation of Scientists

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Photo of smiling people stand with ocean behind them, over map of Guam
Caption: The Pacific STEP-UP team visits Guam for opening of NIDDK lab (l-r): George Hui, University of Hawaii at Manoa; NIDDK’s Griffin P. Rodgers and Lawrence Agodoa; Aneesa Golshan, University of Hawaii at Manoa; Robert Rivers, NIDDK. Credit: Kristina C. Sayama, University of Guam

While talent is everywhere, opportunity is not. That belief, and meeting people where they are, have been the impetus for the efforts of NIH’s National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) to nurture diverse research talent in the Pacific Islands. Most recently that effort manifested in opening a new biomedical research laboratory at Southern High School, located in Santa Rita village on the island of Guam.

One of seven research labs in the Pacific Islands established under NIDDK’s Short-Term Research Experience Program to Unlock Potential (STEP-UP), the facility provides research training to high school and college students from historically underserved populations, which is the mission of STEP-UP. The goal is to foster a diverse, talented scientific workforce.

Created by NIDDK more than 20 years ago, STEP-UP aims to make opportunities accessible to aspiring scientists nationwide, regardless of their background or zip code. In 2009, we expanded the program to the Pacific Islands. By working with academic and nonprofit coordinating centers throughout the United States and its Pacific territories, the program enables students to gain hands-on research experience, one-on-one mentorship, and access to modern laboratory techniques without travelling far from home.

For Mata’uitafa Solomona-Faiai, a Ph.D. student at Yale University School of Public Health, New Haven, CT, the exposure to science through STEP-UP turned into a passion for research. Solomona-Faiai participated in STEP-UP as a high schooler in American Samoa, and again as a college undergraduate. After getting her master’s degree at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., she returned to American Samoa to conduct epidemiology research—and became a co-mentor to high school STEP-UP students. 

Her experiences in STEP-UP made her realize she wanted to pursue a life of public health research and gave her the skills to help pave that path. I was delighted to learn that Solomona-Faiai recently received an NIDDK Diversity Supplement to help support her research, which will focus on improving diabetes outcomes among adolescents from the Pacific Islands. She also hopes one day to run her own research group as an independent principal investigator, and I’m confident in her tenacity to make that happen! 

Solomona-Faiai is among more than 2,300 students who have participated in STEP-UP since 2000. Her story embodies the scientific potential we can access if we contribute the right resources and tools. Early evaluation results of STEP-UP from 2002 to 2018 showed that many of the program’s participants have pursued careers as researchers, physicians, and physician-scientists [1]. In addition, of the more than 300 high school STEP-UP participants in the Pacific Islands, most have gone on to attend four-year universities, many majoring in STEM disciplines [2]. I’m heartened to know our efforts are paying off.

Bringing scientific opportunity to the Pacific Islands has entailed more than just placing students into research labs. We found we had to help create infrastructure—building labs in often under-resourced areas where nearly no biomedical infrastructure previously existed.

Since 2008, NIDDK has helped establish research labs at high schools and community colleges in the American Samoa, Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, Republic of the Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Republic of Palau, and now Guam. The labs are also available to faculty to conduct their own science and to train as mentors. Having the support of their teachers is particularly important for students in these areas, many of whom have never heard of biomedical research before. For them, the labs often provide their first real exposure to science.  

As proud as I am of the strides we’ve made, I know we have much more work to do. That’s why I’m grateful to the unwavering commitment of my colleagues, including Lawrence Agodoa who has pioneered STEP-UP and other programs in NIDDK’s Office of Minority Health Research Coordination; Robert Rivers, who coordinates NIDDK’s training programs; and George Hui at University of Hawaii at Manoa, who has directed the Pacific STEP-UP for 15 years.

They, like so many of NIDDK’s staff, partners, and grantees, will continue to work relentlessly to achieve our institute’s vision of developing a talented biomedical research workforce that fully represents the diverse fabric of the United States and its territories.

This month, we welcome a new class of STEP-UP participants, and I hope that, like Solomona-Faiai, they’ll experience the excitement of scientific discovery that will help shape their career goals and propel them to attain those goals. And I’m reminded of the tremendous responsibility we have to nurture and support the next generation of scientists. After all, the future of our nation’s health is in their hands.

References:

[1] NIDDK’s short-term research experience for underrepresented persons (STEP-UP) program. Rivers, R., Brinkley, K., Agodoa, L. JHDRP. 2019 Summer; 12: 1-2.

[2] Promoting local talents to fight local health issues: STEP-UP in the Pacific. Golshan, A., Hui, G. JHDRP. 2019 Summer; 12: 31-32.

Links:

Short-Term Research Experience Program to Unlock Potential (National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases/NIH)

Office of Minority Health Research Coordination (NIDDK)

Note: Acting NIH Director Lawrence Tabak has asked the heads of NIH’s Institutes and Centers (ICs) to contribute occasional guest posts to the blog to highlight some of the interesting science that they support and conduct. This is the 12th in the series of NIH IC guest posts that will run until a new permanent NIH director is in place.


President Biden Signs Bill Strengthening Research Diversity

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On March 18, President Biden signed the John Lewis National Institute of Minority Health Disparities (NIMHD) Research Endowment Revitalization Act of 2021. It was my honor to be present in the Oval Office for the signing. I’m standing at the far left along with (from l – r): Congresswoman Nanette Diaz Barragán of California; Xavier Becerra, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; Congressman Frank Pallone of New Jersey; Congresswoman Nikema Williams of Georgia; and Eliseo Pérez-Stable, NIMHD director. The Act expands eligibility to help institutions build research infrastructure and recruit, train, and maintain a diverse student body and faculty. Credit: The White House

Discussing Maternal Health with Vice President Harris

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It was an honor to represent NIH on April 13 at the White House’s landmark Maternal Health Cabinet Meeting, chaired by Vice President Kamala Harris (head of the table). The meeting, held in the Ceremonial Room of the White House, focused on discussing the draft White House Blueprint for Addressing the Maternal Health Crisis. During my time with the Vice President and my colleagues, I (seated at the bottom right) highlighted NIH’s actions to improve the amount of research on maternal health, as well as the diversity of researchers conducting this important work. Credit: The White House

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