To increase diversity among UT Southwestern’s researchers and faculty, leaders in the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences have instituted a new program that provides mentorship and other resources to early career scientists from minority groups underrepresented in biomedical science.
PROVIDES (Provost’s Initiative for Diverse Emerging Scholars) seeks Black/African American, Hispanic/Latinx, and Native American postdoctoral fellows and helps put them on a track to become full-time faculty members at UTSW.
This summer, PROVIDES selected its first two scholars: Dr. Genaro Hernandez, who is Hispanic, and Dr. Keisha Hardeman, who is African American. Both are studying diseases that disproportionately affect Black or Hispanic populations.
“In all of our basic science research departments, we currently have no Native American faculty, only three African American faculty, and the number of Hispanic faculty is in the teens. We want and need to do better,” said Dr. Nancy Street, Co-Director of PROVIDES and Associate Dean and Diversity and Inclusion Officer in the Graduate School.
Researchers say there are several reasons why a racial diversity gap continues to persist at most academic institutions nationwide in the sciences – including a lack of representation at schools, failure to nurture minority students, poor cultural awareness, and financial barriers. UTSW leaders hope to ease these challenges through the resources from PROVIDES.
Support offered by PROVIDES includes financial backing while providing training in grant writing and assistance with applying for competitive fellowships. Such funding is critically important in helping researchers continue their work, because one of the factors institutions consider when hiring a faculty member is whether their research is fundable.
“I think the science ends up being the easier part, but other parts of the profession are really challenging, including the pressure to get grants and to publish in certain journals. So the grant mentorship is very important because every level of training gets more competitive,” Dr. Hardeman said.
Also important is scientific mentorship. PROVIDES scholars will receive career development training that includes their own personal scientific advisory committee composed of UTSW scientists in their field of study to help develop research projects. They also have access to a PROVIDES scientific lecture series that features the voices of successful and experienced minority researchers from around the country and personalized networking opportunities with the visiting lecturers.
Mentors who look like you
Dr. Hernandez said he’s grateful for the opportunity to work with mentors who can guide him on his research as well as with those who are educated on the challenges of being a researcher from an underrepresented minority (URM) group.
“Being that the Southwest is heavily populated with Hispanics, it’s very interesting to go into a department and not see someone who looks like you. That means there is no one I can seek for guidance on issues related to being an underrepresented minority,” Dr. Hernandez said.
Dr. Hardeman empathized with that sentiment and said, throughout her academic training, she had limited access to Black science professors.
“I didn’t have a Black professor until I was out of undergrad and was doing postgraduate work in a clinical science program, which is sad,” she said.
“Diversity in science is important because we all have a different level of insight about the science we study. There’s been a long history of unethical experimentation on Black people in research, and I think such historical and cultural perspectives still matter in the lab today,” Dr. Hardeman added.
Particularly among African Americans, academic institutions nationwide have been afflicted by the same problem – while there has been a steady increase in the percentage of Black students enrolled in graduate school programs in recent years, there is a heavy drop-off when it comes to the percentage of Black postdoctoral fellows and faculty. Therefore, UTSW is focused on attracting candidates at both levels. One strategy the Graduate School is working on is a postdoctoral recruitment day for graduate students nationwide to engage with UTSW faculty and learn about their research.
“We have a dire need for Black postdoctoral researchers, as well as people from other diverse groups. Before we ramp up the transition to faculty program, we’ve got to increase the diversity of the postdoctoral population at UT Southwestern. So, really, our first focus is to increase the number of postdocs from diverse backgrounds so there are candidates to pull from that population to become independent faculty members,” said Dr. Russell DeBose-Boyd, PROVIDES Co-director and Professor of Molecular Genetics.
Dr. DeBose-Boyd joined UTSW in 1998 as a postdoctoral fellow in the lab of Nobel Laureates Dr. Joseph Goldstein and Dr. Michael Brown before opening his own lab and advancing to Professor. He is currently the only African American full Professor in the Graduate School. His career ascension is used as a model for PROVIDES to help advance its scholars.
“There are several scientists in the Department of Molecular Genetics that have followed the same path, and in my view it has been really successful,” Dr. DeBose-Boyd said. “Universities have two ways to increase URM faculty; one is to recruit and the other, which we think is the strongest, is to grow our own. We think the grow-our-own approach will especially contribute to the development of African American faculty at UT Southwestern.”
Stepping up recruitment
Leaders said the low percentages of students, postdoctoral fellows, and faculty from certain minority groups are a related problem at UTSW and believe that hiring more minority faculty members will help with the enrollment of URM students and postdoctoral fellows.
“I have heard many times from our students that, ‘It’s hard to imagine being a faculty member when I don’t see any faculty members who look like me,’” Dr. Street said. “The same concern then exists for Black postdoctoral fellows who might question whether they belong at UT Southwestern or even just in science.”
As Diversity and Inclusion Officer, Dr. Street has committed the last 21 years to recruiting minority students to help create that pipeline and travels regularly to form relationships with institutions that have large URM populations. She first met Dr. Hernandez in 2009 when she recruited him to participate in the Graduate School’s SURF (Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship) program. Dr. Street credits such networking opportunities for helping increase URM student enrollment.
“I am glad that UT Southwestern is showing it has a grasp of how to improve diversity and is being proactive, which is one of the reasons why I chose to come to UT Southwestern,” said Dr. Hernandez, who earned his doctorate in pharmacology at UTSW in 2019.
While there are gains to be made at the student level, current URM levels in the Graduate School are above national averages as reported in a 2018 National Science Foundation survey. At UTSW, Hispanics make up 20.5 percent of the Graduate School enrollment compared with an average of 10.5 percent nationwide; Black student graduate school enrollment is 8.3 percent compared with 5.3 percent nationally; and Native American enrollment is 0.6 percent compared with 0.4 percent nationally.
Significant growth in URM graduate students has occurred over the past two decades. In 2000, there were 10 URM graduate students at UTSW; in 2020, there are more than 100. In 2019, the Graduate School matriculated 42 U.S. students, including 21 from URM groups. Program directors are hopeful PROVIDES can be a vehicle to help make similar gains among postdoctoral fellows and faculty.
“In my career, mentors did not look like me, and that’s something we have to work on. But, something students and faculty have to realize is that you don’t have to be the same color as your trainee in order to be a great mentor. I’m a prime example, and I think there are many other examples of researchers who aren’t people of color, but they are strong mentors and really care about diversity. We have a lot of these people at UT Southwestern who I think will make excellent mentors for our PROVIDES scholars,” Dr. DeBose-Boyd said.
Meet the Scholars
Dr. Genaro Hernandez, Pharmacologist
Lab assignment: Dr. Vincent Tagliabracci, Assistant Professor of Molecular Biology
Research interest: Novel activities of human and viral enzymes in health and disease
“I have a personal mission that I would like to beat metabolic diseases like diabetes. I love the problem-solving nature of science and the detective work involved. Once you solve a problem and work with a team, it’s one of the best experiences – it’s pretty much a thrill.”
Dr. Keisha Hardeman, Cell biologist
Lab assignment: Dr. Shawn Burgess, Professor of Pharmacology in the Center for Human Nutrition
Research interests: Fatty liver disease and cancer metabolism
“Almost everything we do and know now, there was significant research behind that. You need scientists to study things systematically in order to make our world better, and you need a diverse group of scientists who bring a diverse world view.”