A new NIEHS initiative to increase collaboration with students and faculty from Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) was unveiled during an April 5 event sponsored by the NIEHS Office of Science Education and Diversity (OSED). HBCU-Connect is a multifaceted effort to strengthen ties between the institute and faculty and students at academic institutions that are often underrepresented in the sciences.
In opening remarks, NIEHS Deputy Director Trevor Archer, Ph.D., reaffirmed the NIEHS commitment to diversity.
“NIEHS fosters an inclusive scientific discovery environment by providing educational opportunities for students of all ages and backgrounds,” Archer said. “Our goal is to inspire the development of environmental health science leaders from diverse backgrounds — in this case, from the HBCU community.”
“The program we’re launching today is just the beginning of a larger effort,” said OSED Director Ericka Reid, Ph.D. “We’re starting in the Triangle [Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill, North Carolina], but we’re also reaching out to HBCUs across the state and the region.”
Reid stressed the importance of mentoring to the success of HBCU-Connect.
“Students will be invited to lab meetings, staff meetings, science talks, and other events,” she said. “NIEHS mentors will assist in any way they can to help you make decisions regarding your educational goals and career path.”
Research training opportunities
OSED Undergraduate Research Training Program Manager Suchandra Bhattacharjee, Ph.D., chaired a session on National Institutes of Health (NIH) undergraduate research training opportunities. Those include the Summer Internship Program, the Postbaccalaureate Intramural Research Training Award (IRTA), and the Undergraduate Scholarship Program (UGSP). Unique to NIEHS is the Scholars Connect Program.
UGSP Director Darryl Murray, Ph.D., said there are almost 1,300 postbaccalaureate trainees across all 27 NIH institutes and centers. “UGSP [works with] students from financially disadvantaged backgrounds who make a commitment to health-related research,” he said. “Providing NIH jobs is one of our goals.”
Katherine Hamilton, from the NIEHS Office of Fellows’ Career Development, emphasized that students do not need experience to be part of the summer program.
“You will work directly with a principal investigator or postdoc,” she said. “We will teach you everything you need to know.”
Second year NIEHS Postbac IRTA Fellow Princess Kamuche is now applying for medical school. Her advice is not to be daunted by challenges. “Don’t think that because a program is prestigious, you must be underqualified,” she said.
Glenn Jackson, a 2020-2021 NIEHS Scholars Connect Program participant and recent graduate of North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University (NC A&T), had similar advice.
“We discussed the imposter syndrome — the fear that you aren’t good enough — a lot,” he said. “That fear can prevent you from doing things. Give yourself confidence that you know you can do it. No one is born knowing anything.”
Student career paths
A session on career paths traced the professional trajectories of several NIEHS scientists and administrators. Seeking out mentorship was key for all.
Laboratory Animal Veterinarian Sheba Churchill, D.V.M., said she decided on her career track in seventh grade, but still had twists and turns to deal with along the way. That’s when mentors are important, she said.
“I've never heard anyone say ‘No, I don’t want to talk to you,’” Churchill told attendees. “People love offering the benefit of their experience and helping you navigate different places, especially if they’ve been there.”
Dondrae Coble, D.V.M., chief of the Comparative Medicine Branch, said he takes pride in offering his career success as an example to students. “When they see me, it lets them know that scientific professions are an option and obtainable,” he said.
NIEHS Stadtman Investigator Jason Watts, M.D., Ph.D., said that even after 10 years, he still talks regularly with his doctoral advisor. “The relationships you build can last your entire career,” he said.
IRTA Postdoc Fellow Cindo Nicholson, Ph.D., said mentors have a way of helping you discover hidden interests. “They were a great help in discovering interests that lie dormant in you that you never really considered before,” he said.
The last session brought together NIEHS Division of Extramural Research and Training staff to give an overview of grant mechanisms and funding opportunities for HBCU faculty, including an explanation of nomenclature.
Health Scientist Administrator Mike Humble, Ph.D., described the popular, two-part K99/R00 Pathway to Independence Award. It is given to postdocs for the last two years of their research, and they receive additional funding upon accepting their first faculty position.
That kind of award can be beneficial on the job market, noted Humble. “When you start applying for jobs, you can say, ‘I already have research funding,’” he said.
(John Yewell is a contract writer for the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison.)