March 24, 2011

NIH grant to help increase diversity of biomedical scientists

NIH grant to help increase diversity of biomedical scientists

Vanderbilt University Medical Center has received a $3.7 million federal grant to help prepare 68 underrepresented minority scientists for leadership positions in medical school faculties during the next five years.

The start date for the grant was March 11, “so we are already out of the starting gate,” said Roger Chalkley, D.Phil., senior associate dean for Biomedical Research Education and Training (BRET) at Vanderbilt.

This is the third grant Vanderbilt has received from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to increase the diversity of biomedical scientists.

The first two grants, under what currently is known as the Initiative for Maximizing Student Diversity (IMSD), have been very successful, he said.

Chalkley co-directs the Vanderbilt IMSD program with Linda Sealy, Ph.D, associate professor of Molecular Physiology & Biophysics, Cell & Developmental Biology and Cancer Biology

Thirty-five students were recruited under the first grant from 2001 to 2006. Sixty percent of them have earned or will earn this year a Ph.D. in biomedical science. Overall, 90 percent have earned advanced or professional degrees.

With the receipt of the second grant in 2007, Chalkley and Sealy implemented a “holistic” admissions process for applicants that took into account their research experience and life circumstances.

Sealy said she believes minority students are underrepresented in biomedical science training programs because of the heavy emphasis on grade point averages and Graduate Record Exam (GRE) scores in the admissions process.

This despite the fact that standardized scores aren't particularly good predictors of success in graduate school.

Raw scores don't pick up the innovation, creativity, perseverance or motivation required by students who had to work two jobs while in undergraduate school to cover tuition.

“Those four things are far more important to success in the research environment than any multiple-choice GRE score can ever be,” Sealy said.

The holistic approach seems to have worked. Of the 20 students who were recruited under the second grant, “18 are still in the program and are doing well,” Chalkley said. “They're well on their way to the Ph.D.”

Nationally, however, this effort has not budged the stubbornly low number of underserved minorities in tenure-track, basic science faculty positions in U.S. medical schools.

The figure was only 2 percent in 1980 and it's still 2 percent today, he said.

“It's obviously not enough to train somebody to be a scientist,” Sealy said. “If you want a leader, you need to train a leader, just like if you want a scientist, you train a scientist.

“So we're really going to focus on trying to prepare these students not just to be research scientists but to be prepared to be leaders in their fields in the 21st century, with a heavy emphasis on translational medicine,” she said. Scientists who can lead in that area “are truly going to be in high demand.”

Toward that end, the IMSD will align with the Certificate Program in Molecular Medicine, a joint effort of Vanderbilt and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute launched last year that provides graduate students in the biomedical sciences with clinical experience.

News of Vanderbilt's programs is spreading — more than 200 underrepresented minority students have applied so far this year, Chalkley said.

“We have a very supportive faculty who are very much on board with trying to improve the diversity of our graduate students,” Sealy said. “They've gone out of their way to be terrific mentors to these students.”