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November 2011

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NIH looks toward new opportunities for underrepresented minorities

By Eddy Ball
November 2011

Ernest MÁrquez, Ph.D.

Even though its 2011 meeting( Exit NIEHS Oct. 27-30 is expected to attract 3,500 attendees and more than 300 exhibiting institutions, MÁrquez was quick to remind the audience, “SACNAS is much more than a conference.” He pointed to its Leadership Institute, 65 chapters, regional meetings, extensive archive of publications, and revamped website, as well as emerging social media initiatives. (Photo courtesy of Ernest MÁrquez)

NIH Deputy Director Lawrence Tabak, D.D.S., Ph.D

Tabak assured the audience, “We [at NIH] take very seriously the challenge of reaching out to Hispanics and other diverse groups.” (Photo courtesy of NIH)

NIH Hispanic Employment Program Manager Gerard Roman

Roman said he was encouraged by the newly established SACNAS chapter at NIH and anticipates the partnership will also help NIEHS improve its representation of Hispanics and other URM populations. He noted that NIEHS Education Outreach Specialist Ericka Reid, Ph.D., planned to represent the Institute at the SACNAS meeting. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

NIH observed Hispanic Heritage Month Oct. 5, as it celebrated accomplishments of the Hispanic community and predicted advances to come for underrepresented minorities.

The choice of the speaker at the event in Bethesda, Md., biochemist Ernest MÁrquez, Ph.D., a retired NIH health scientist administrator and current president of the Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS)( Exit NIEHS, showcased a high-profile Hispanic scientist, while also marking the recent establishment of a SACNAS chapter at NIH.

Along with a number of Hispanic scientists at NIH and a delegation of students from nearby Wheaton High School in Silver Spring, Md., also on hand for the celebration was NIH Hispanic Employment Program Manager Gerard Roman, who is based at NIEHS and serves as liaison at the Institute for services provided by the NIH Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity Management.

The NIH commitment to diversity and the challenges it faces

Preliminary speakers at the event included NIH Deputy Director Lawrence Tabak, D.D.S., Ph.D.( Exit NIEHS; Michael Sesma, Ph.D., a program official at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH); and Arlyn Garcia-Perez, Ph.D., assistant director of the NIH Office of Intramural Research. Tabak hailed the founding of the new SACNAS chapter as a fruitful partnership between NIH and the group that promises to help NIH boost outreach and recruitment to a very important and growing population.

Sesma, who introduced MÁrquez, his longtime friend and former colleague at NIMH, shared with the audience what he called his elevator story. In 1995, he and a small group of Hispanic scientists found themselves in the same elevator on the way to a meeting, and he said he recalled thinking, “If something happens on this elevator, a lot of the Hispanics at NIH will be gone.”

At the time, Hispanics represented about 2.5 percent of employees at NIH, about the same percentage as in 2011. For Sesma, despite advances toward the goal of diversity, that sobering statistic underscores how much work still lies ahead to realize a truly representative workforce.

Prospects for moving forward as partners

MÁrquez touched on both faces of the Hispanic experience at NIH - the leadership's genuine commitment to improving opportunities for under-represented minorities (URM) and the reality of how much change is needed to achieve parity for URM scientists. His talk on the topic, “SACNAS: Enhancing STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] Education in the United States,” outlined the ways he feels the NIH-SACNAS partnership can help NIH attract URM scientists and other professionals.

“The way to strengthen our country is through science, technology, engineering, and math,” MÁrquez began. In the course of addressing what he called the national imperative to build a strong domestic STEM workforce, broaden participation in our nation's science, and become more globally competitive, he emphasized, “We need to be as diverse as we can.”

Diversity brings different perspectives and approaches for solving complex human problems and expanding the talent pool to enhance innovation and improve the nation's global economic leadership, MÁrquez continued, and can also help NIH more effectively address the persistent problem of health disparities.

An uphill effort

Comparing the percentage of URM people in the population, 28.5 percent, to their presence in the science and engineering workforce, 9.1 percent with doctorates, MÁrquez observed, “This suggests that the proportion of URM would need to triple to match their share of the overall U.S. population. That is a huge challenge ... and it's not all going to happen at SACNAS.”

Still, the award-winning SACNAS brings some important strengths to its partnership with NIH, MÁrquez said - a diverse blend of science, culture, and community, as well as a strong focus on mentoring and high-quality, multi-disciplinary science. SACNAS is an excellent venue for NIH recruitment of URM employees, he explained. It also has a commitment to community-based participatory research and outreach capabilities that could help raise awareness of scientific opportunities for young minorities and boost much-needed URM community involvement in clinical trials.

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