Advancing the Science

Mayo Clinic Medical Science Blog – an eclectic collection of research- and research education-related stories: feature stories, mini news bites, learning opportunities, profiles and more from Mayo Clinic.

December 10, 2019

Diversity advances the best science

By Advancing the Science contributor
Louis (Jim) Maher III, Ph.D. and J. Luis Lujan, Ph.D.

For more than 25 years, Mayo Clinic Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences has partnered with the federal government through the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to become a training destination for aspiring biomedical research scientists from backgrounds underrepresented in science. This includes people with disabilities, black/African Americans, American Indian/Alaska Natives, Hispanic/Latinos and Native Hawaiian/ Pacific Islanders.

Extramural competitive support for Mayo Clinic’s three major biomedical research diversity grants totals more than $1 million per year.

  • Two awards from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences fund research training and enrichment for recent college graduates preparing for professional school, and for Ph.D. and M.D.-Ph.D. students in their first two years of graduate training. More than 90% of participants in the Initiative for Maximizing Student Development (IMSD) program have graduated with a Ph.D. or M.D.-Ph.D. in their intended biomedical research discipline.
  • An award from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute funds summer research training experiences for undergraduates and medical students.

Mayo Clinic broadens the definition of diversity to include students who represent the spectrum of nationality, ethnicity, race, gender identity, sexual orientation, physical ability, economic status and family background. In addition to the extramurally-funded grants, the graduate school invests its own resources in diversity programs including:

  • Support for Ph.D. and M.D.-Ph.D. students who are the first generation in their family to graduate from college.
  • Support for research training and enrichment in preparation for professional school application for diverse recent college graduates in the Postbaccalaureate Research Education Program (PREP) through partnership with Mayo Clinic Center for Regenerative Medicine.
  • Support for a cohort of underrepresented undergraduate students sponsored for admission into highly competitive Mayo Clinic Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) program.
  • Curriculum based on near-peer interactions in faculty-led training on topics focused on honing oral and written communication skills including self-assessment, professional skills, grant proposal composition and preparation for professional school admission.

We succeed when our scientists better represent the patient populations who could benefit from their discoveries.

Louis (Jim) Maher III, Ph.D.

“In the 1990s Mayo Clinic Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences leadership decided, with the pioneering vision of then-associate dean Rick McGee, Ph.D. (now associate dean for Faculty Recruitment & Professional Development at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine), that the leaders of the biomedical research workforce should reflect the genetic, cultural and socioeconomic diversity of our country,” says Louis (Jim) Maher III, Ph.D., former dean, Mayo Clinic Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, and the Bernard Pollack Professor of Biochemistry & Molecular Biology.

“Dr. McGee was passionate about developing funding mechanisms to train future researchers and dreamed that Mayo Clinic could become a destination for this type of training. He developed PREP, which the NIH made into a national program. I was fortunate to inherit these programs from him. Our team has depended on key leaders throughout the years, including Dennis Mays, Ph.D. (program manager of diversity grants, Office for Diversity, Mayo Clinic College of Medicine and Science), and most recently, Jason Doles, Ph.D. (Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at Mayo Clinic in Rochester and a faculty member coach in the IMSD program.)

“Dr. McGee firmly believed that lack of personnel diversity translates into lack of diversity in thinking, and studies have confirmed that diversity makes research teams more creative and productive. As a result of that vision, we are committed to recruiting students who don’t look, sound or think alike. Diverse teams learn better and conduct more meaningful scientific research for all involved. Additionally, we need scientists of color to remedy health disparities and the scarcity of racial and ethnic minorities in medical studies. We succeed when our scientists better represent the patient populations who could benefit from their discoveries.”

The NIH encourages educational institutions to increase the number of students and faculty from groups that are under-represented in biomedical science. Traditionally, people in those groups have had less access, encouragement or opportunity to engage in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) courses in high school and college. Such students often encounter fewer undergraduate research opportunities, making graduate-level research training and long-term careers in biomedical sciences more difficult to attain.

The chances of success for underrepresented minority (URM) students in biomedical sciences are enhanced when students participate in enrichment programs such as those offered by Mayo Clinic Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences.

“We have the opportunity to transform the face of biomedical research with students from diverse backgrounds who are extremely talented and bright — who may not have had as much exposure to research but who have great potential,” says Karen Hedin, Ph.D., Mayo Clinic Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences co-leader of the renewed NIH grant and a consultant in the Department of Immunology on the Arizona campus.

Today more than half of the students in Mayo Clinic Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences programs are women, and racial diversity in some programs is approaching national averages of the U.S. population.

Assisting with making diversity goals a reality is J. Luis Lujan, Ph.D., the graduate school’s assistant dean for Diversity and Inclusion. A native of Mexico, Dr. Lujan joined the faculty in 2013. “Diversity in leadership also is important for students from underrepresented groups to see,” he says. “They need mentors and role models who can relate to what they’re experiencing in pursuit of a research career.”

Dr. Maher explains the pride he feels when students who have participated in enrichment programs succeed. “I reflect on conversations with students when we tried to keep them on track — when they were losing enthusiasm or saw obstacles as insurmountable. Those of us in the graduate school’s leadership are so happy and proud to see those same students overcome their challenges with help from our enrichment programs. The students graduate and reproduce the spirit and support they had at Mayo Clinic at other institutions around the country, mentoring and lifting up others. In that way, our programs have even greater impact.”

This article is part one of a two-part series. Please watch for the next installment, Biomedical diversity grants propel Mayo students into research, on December 23, 2019.

This article was originally published in Mayo Clinic's Alumni Magazine, Issue 3, 2019.

The Mayo Clinic College of Medicine and Science includes five schools:

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Tags: Dennis Mays, Education, health disparities, J. Luis Lujan, Jason Doles, Jim Maher, Karen Hedin, Mayo Clinic Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, People, Rick McGee

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