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Start with these numbers: African-Americans make up 13 percent of the United States population, but comprise only 5 percent of those employed in the life, physical, and social sciences. Or with this: less than 3 percent of Ph.D.s in biology and chemistry are held by African-Americans. Different statistics pepper various reports, but none dispute the central fact, that African-Americans do not hold life science jobs in numbers commensurate with their representation in the US population. The gap matters not just to African-Americans considering science careers, but to science itself. It raises important questions, such as: How can we address health disparities without researchers from different backgrounds or clinical trials using a range of relevant populations? And how can the US produce world-class scientists without cultivating the ample talent in underrepresented populations, including African-Americans? Esteemed programs such as the National Institutes of Health Minority Access to Research Careers (MARC) have encouraged African-American scientists for years, but it’s clear that more efforts are needed. Now some of the best minds in government, academia, and industry are searching for new answers and new strategies, using innovative programs to bolster the life science work force and address disparities from the ground up.
Offering alternatives for younger students
While a knack for science often manifests early—what scientist can’t recall a fond memory of an ant farm or a chemistry set?—turning that spark into a sustained career takes years of study, planning, and dedication. So it makes sense that some initiatives focus on early education and exposure, hoping to give African-Americans a strong foundation. At the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) in Galveston, for example, community science programs, including after-school workshops, summer camps and research programs, and career days, start at the prekindergarten level and focus on underserved communities. As Clifford Houston, UTMB’s associate vice president for educational outreach, points out, “The whole idea is to bring in students who have been ignored or disadvantaged.” And those students, once engaged, show a commitment to science studies. Grades almost universally improve, and at the popular UTMB-supported Galveston County Science and Engineering Fair, Houston sees an increasing number of African-American entrants. “Not just presenting but winning, getting first, second, or third place,” says Houston. “We can look at winners and say, okay, that person was in our summer science camp.” Houston feels the programs create alternatives for local students who may not have considered science otherwise. “What we find is that the more options and more information students have about career choices, the better career choices they will make,” he says.
Wayne Bowen, biology professor and co-director of the Molecular Pharmacology, Physiology and Biotechnology Graduate program at Brown University, agrees that reaching African-American students at a young age is crucial. But he thinks that providing good role models is as important as making sure kids learn. “African-American students don’t see many people like them in careers like this,” he says. “They’ve seen African-American doctors, maybe, but scientists?” In 2001, Bowen served as the president of NIH’s Black Scientists Association (BSA), which works to increase the numbers and visibility of African-American scientists at NIH. In addition to programs such as a seminar series, BSA often brings in student groups to publicize science career opportunities. After one presentation, says Bowen, a student came up to the assembled scientists to tell them about his interest in oceanography. “Even though he was at NIH, National Institutes of Health, he saw an opportunity to talk to someone who might know something about oceanography,” says Bowen. “There was probably no one at his school who could help him at all.”
Building relationships as challenges grow
Supporting work force breadth and depth
Focusing resources to foster talent
Looking forward, reaching out
In the end, building a robust, diverse science work force will take vigorous effort from many camps. The good news is that a host of programs in government, academia, and industry are dedicated to increasing the numbers of African-Americans in science. With continued efforts, education and recruiting programs should soon bear fruit, bringing new power to the life sciences. Says Merck’s Dagit, “We feel strongly that our internal talent needs to match the marketplace. I think the life sciences have been a little too late to the party on bringing our talents and resources to bear on solving some of the critical issues within a given community. I’m proud to work for a company that feels strongly about that.”