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Environmental Factor, July 2015

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NIEHS marks advances in diversifying the biomedical workforce

By Eddy Ball

Mike Humble

Humble began his talk with a reference to Goal 9 of the NIEHS strategic plan, which calls for training the next generation of environmental health science leaders from a wider range of scientific disciplines and diverse backgrounds. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

David Eaton

Council members David Eaton, Ph.D., left, of the University of Washington, and Guilarte, center, represent institutions with UP training grants. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D.

Birnbaum, right, expressed her confidence that the new approach would advance diversity. Gwen Collman, Ph.D., left, director of the NIEHS Division of Extramural Research and Training, was obviously proud of her staff’s work in putting together the program and facilitating funding. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

NIEHS celebrated two milestones this month in its ongoing efforts to increase diversity in the biomedical workforce through innovative training initiatives.

During the June 2 open session of the National Advisory Environmental Health Sciences Council, Michael Humble, Ph.D., health scientist administrator in the NIEHS Division of Extramural Research and Training, outlined six new awards made April 1 as part of the Undergraduate Research Education Program (UP) to Enhance Diversity in the Environmental Health Sciences.

The following week, the NIEHS Scholars Connect Program welcomed its fourth cohort of students (see story) and recognized the exceptional achievements of previous participants in the yearlong training program.

“NIH as a whole is committed to really increase the diversity in the biomedical workforce,” said NIEHS and National Toxicology Program Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D. “Trying to do something different, we hope, will lead to [even more] positive outcomes.”

New life for science curricula

UP and Scholars Connect both got their inspiration from several programs, including the following:

  • The National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) Maximizing Access to Research Careers Undergraduate Student Training in Academic Research (U-STAR) program, where underrepresented undergraduate students, typically in their junior and senior years of college, are provided two-year research and training opportunities in the biomedical sciences.
  • The Meyerhoff Scholars Program at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, where science education has been fundamentally revisioned to improve success rates.

The universities receiving the new grants have several basic strategies in common:

  • Targeting students from underrepresented populations, with a 2:1 or greater ratio between mentors and the 5-8 students in each program, with long-range state-of-the-art research projects in the environmental health sciences.
  • Providing full-time stipend support during the summer months and part-time support during the academic year, leveraging existing NIEHS programs and resources for greater impact, and integrating research experience with coursework, seminars, and social networking.
  • Using Individual Development Plans for participants, objective-based program evaluations, and long-term tracking for measuring participant and program outcomes.

Win-win for students, NIEHS programs, and the future

During his presentation, Humble described the benefits of this new approach. “It’s a great opportunity for students to fully engage in a project and then return to school,” he said. “It’s a nice way to build on [resources and talent] that we already have in place.”

The council gave its early concurrence for UP during its September 2014 meeting. This time, members expressed satisfaction with the framework Humble and the NIEHS team developed for the program.

Council member and grantee Tomas Guilarte, Ph.D., of Columbia University, pointed to ways UP could increase the number of qualified candidates from underserved populations for faculty positions in the future. “We [desperately] need to build a pipeline,” he said, referring to a recent experience trying to fill an open position at Columbia.

He added that he was also delighted at recruitment so far and that he was looking forward to being one of the 17 faculty mentors in the Columbia program.

(Eddy Ball, Ph.D., is a contract writer with the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison.)

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