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A Catch-22 in Minority Training: How to Maintain Balance

As an ECR, it is important to attend conferences and meetings in order to gain knowledge and build networks. Whether you attend a small, specialized conference or a huge international meeting, there is always an opportunity to learn about cutting edge research and make new contacts.

Many societies provide travel awards for trainees in order to encourage young scientists to participate in conferences early in their careers. Societies often provide not only general travel awards for ECRs but also have travel awards designated for minority trainees to increase society diversity and provide a support system for minority attendees. These awards often incorporate extra networking opportunities and further programming for award winners. The hope is that by providing an adequate support system for minority trainees, societies will increase recruitment and retention of diverse populations.

Minority Travel Awards

Recently, I attended the American Society for Cell Biology (ASCB) Annual Meeting in San Francisco. I was fortunate to receive the MAC Travel Award from the ASCB Minorities Affairs Committee. This award facilitated my attendance at ASCB by reducing financial burden and providing supplemental networking opportunities. In order to receive the travel money, I was required to attend career development and mentoring sessions geared toward minority trainees during the meeting. Unfortunately, these lectures and events ran concurrently with scientific lectures that I was unable to attend due to the mandated sessions. My research focuses on the understudied role of intermediate filament proteins in cancer so there were only a few symposia at the meeting that applied to my research. I was disappointed when I discovered the scheduling conflict between the required career development sessions and the scientific sessions that prompted me to apply to the meeting in the first place. Upon attending the career development sessions I further realized that they not only overlapped with scientific sessions of interest, but also exclusively focused on preparing trainees for academic careers. While many students would benefit from learning how to succeed in academia, with fewer than half of biomedical PhDs remaining in academic careers, a broader perspective would have been beneficial.

I experienced similar requirements in 2015 when I attended the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) Annual Meeting in Philadelphia with the AACR Minority Scholar in Cancer Research Award. One huge perk of the Minority Scholar in Cancer Research Award was that this travel award included networking events that allowed minority trainees the incredible chance to meet thought leaders in their field. However, for this meeting, the burden of attending mandated sessions conflicted almost entirely with the scientific talks that were most relevant to my research.

The AACR and ASCB societies are not entirely at fault for this problem. Both societies fund minority students via travel grants sponsored by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Therefore, to show that each society supports the minority graduate student they must demonstrate that awardees will be participating in mentoring and career development sessions to support their scientific careers. Despite these good intentions, the result remains the same: minority students risk missing out on regular meeting activities that travel grants should cover and thereby risk losing access to opportunities to scientific growth. National meetings provide a chance to learn about cutting edge research and if minority travel awardees miss out on these educational prospects, their research suffers.

Incidental costs of diversity initiatives

The NIH also promotes diversity in the workforce through monetary incentives. These include individual and institutional funding mechanisms such as the National Research Service Award (NRSA) Diversity Pre-Doctoral Fellowship and the Initiative Maximizing Student Development (IMSD). Minority graduate students should of course be encouraged to apply to these programs. Fellowships benefit students and their mentors by reducing the financial burden a student places on the lab and boosting a student’s CV. Some universities even provide stipend increases as a reward to those students who procure external funding.

The goal of these NIH funding mechanisms is to increase the enrollment and retention of diverse populations in biomedical sciences. The IMSD program at my institution encourages minority retention through mentorship in the form of bi-weekly meetings, seminars, and extra electives all required for a student to maintain their IMSD funding. While well intended, it is often the case that these requirements take time and energy from the student’s primary goal that is to complete their doctoral education. The requirements attached to these opportunities then become another obstacle in our graduate education.

Where do we go from here?

These problems reveal a catch-22 in minority training. While research shows that outstanding mentorship and exposure to career development opportunities is the key to producing successful graduate students, these initiatives may risk placing an extra burden on minority trainees and conflict with their research. However, as scientists and institutions attempt to tackle this problem, we may be overcorrecting and placing burdensome requirements on minority trainees to improve their education.

The key is to find a balance between the positive aspects of mentorship and career boosting and the time needed to the actual research.

One solution could be instead of requiring minority students to attend all career development sessions provided, let them select those sessions that are most applicable to their career goals. Customizable mentorship would ensure that each student receives adequate support without losing access to scientific opportunities that would develop their research project.

In my experience, minority trainees are extremely dedicated to their career goals. If adequate opt-in programming is provided to the general student population, minorities will show up and reap the benefits along with their peers. A major factor in a graduate student’s success is having a great support system. For me, the ideal minority mentorship experience would provide a nurturing environment through formal and informal networking and career development opportunities. However, this ideal experience is something that needs to be constantly developed and assessed as the student population grows and evolves.

Minorities need what everyone else needs

In a meeting to prepare for the IMSD grant application at my school, minority studies met with the division director to discuss what should be emphasized in the institution’s grant application to the NIH. The question asked of us was: “What do you guys need?” As one student bluntly put it: “We need what everyone else needs.” At the end of the day, we are all students. Therefore, we all deserve a respectful balance of mentorship and scientific training. A graduate student’s main responsibility, regardless of background, should be their research and progress.

Featured Image: Photo by Alessandra Richardson

References

ASCB 2016 Annual Meeting
ASCB MAC Travel Award
ASCB Minorities Affairs Committee
So what does the biomedical research workforce look like, Dr. Sally Rockey, 2012
American Association for Cancer Research
AACR Minority Scholar in Cancer Research Award
National Institutes of Health
National Research Service Award F31 Predoctoral Fellowship
Initiative Maximizing Student Development
Emory GDBBS Support Package
Emory IMSD
Minority Student Perceptions of the Impact of Mentoring to Enhance Academic Performance in STEM Disciplines Kendricks, Kimberly D; Nedunuri, K V; Arment, Anthony R, June 2013
Achieving Excellence in Graduate Research: A Guide for New Graduate Students, C Parker, J Amsden, Q Peng, B Stoner, J Glass, July 2015

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