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
Not every student who finds an interest in elementary or secondary school, however, will choose to pursue it through a demanding university program. Many students, of all ethnicities, enter college with the intent to study the sciences, and many leave; attrition is not confined to a particular group. "But the problem is multiplied for underrepresented minorities," says George Langford, Dean of the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst (UMass). "When students come into the university, the numbers of white and black students with an interest in the sciences are about the same. However, fewer minority students complete their undergraduate degree in the sciences." One problem is budgetary restrictions: "We don't have sufficient infrastructure to support the numbers of students. It's very expensive to support a professor in the sciences, as compared to the humanities. We have to invest in labs, in faculty." Tighter budgets mean large introductory classes, which can be daunting, particularly when students don't see other African-Americans in the class or more importantly, teaching it. "If I look at UMass," Langford says, "well, I can count the number of minority faculty on my fingers."
Such a homogeneous faculty can lead to lost opportunities. Often, Langford says, African-American students miss out more on what's not in a syllabus than what is. The issue isn't preparation, he says; it's social capital, the culture of science rather than the content. Knowing which professors to approach in a department, and how often to drop into their offices; understanding which publications to bring up in a conversation, or which professional associations to join; assimilating the argot of the industry and separating slang from necessary jargon: all these skills are as important to success as grades and lab technique. "Minority students come in without that; so do white students; but because it's transmitted culturally, it's hard for white faculty to transmit it to black students. Black students study extremely hard, they do well, but they don't always meet the cultural requirements." Langford is working with colleagues in other UMass colleges, such as humanities and fine arts, developing new courses and partnerships to help students and faculty understand the issues they'll face. Facilitating a dialogue between scientists and other scholars, Langford hopes, will help life science faculty realize that not all essential skills can be gauged with an exam.
In an effort to bring more African-American scientists to campus, UMass has also diversified graduate program recruiting and retention strategies. The university leads the Northeast Alliance for Graduate Education and the Professoriate (NEAGEP), a National Science Foundation–funded program that unites large schools such as UMass and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with minority-serving partner institutions. NEAGEP's orientation, mentoring, and tutoring provide a stable community for African-Americans who choose to study at UMass, while professional development opportunities help them negotiate the first steps in their new career. Since the program's inception, the percentage of new life science doctoral enrollees who are from underrepresented minorities has increased more than fivefold, from 3 percent in 1999 to 15 percent in 2005. Other universities support similar programs. For example, in the Leadership Alliance Summer Research Early Identification Program (SR-EIP), headquartered at Brown, participating students receive a stipend, travel allowance, and housing, and work for eight to 10 weeks with a faculty or research mentor at one of 32 alliance institutions. At the end of the program, students present their findings at a national symposium. The young researchers get valuable lab experience and a great networking opportunity, while faculty can use the program to identify talented African-American students; Brown's Bowen says he often uses the alliance database for recruiting.
Other members of the Leadership Alliance include several historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), such as Howard University, Spelman College, and Xavier University of Louisiana. HBCUs, of course, produce significant numbers of African-American graduates each year, and many are putting special resources toward science programs. At Morehouse College, for example, J.K. Haynes, Dean of the Division of Science and Mathematics, touts the Hopps Research Scholars Program, supported by the US Department of Defense. The Hopps program, in which students do research with chosen mentors from freshman year until they graduate and take special classes focused on graduate school preparation, kicked off in 2006 with about 25 participants, but two recent classes of Packard Scholars followed a similar program. "At least 70 percent of those young men went to graduate school," Haynes says; with the right resources, he hopes to bring that matriculation number up to 85 percent.
Supporting Work Force Breadth and Depth
Support for undergraduate and graduate programs that encourage African-American scientists also comes from industry leaders. Merck, in a partnership with the United Negro College Fund, awards at least 37 scholarships a year to African-American researchers at the undergraduate, graduate, and postdoctoral levels; to date, the program has trained more than 370 scientists. To Deborah Dagit, executive director of diversity and work environment at Merck, the UNCF-Merck program is far more than a feeder program for her company. "We seek to prepare students for careers in the pharmaceutical industry, and sometimes with our company, but also in other ways. For example, former fellows can be our partners in clinical research." Increasing the number of African-Americans in biotech will benefit the industry as a whole, she says; whether Merck sees a direct benefit is irrelevant. "We really did this to increase the number of black scientists, not to benefit Merck in particular. If they're working with another health care company to address needs within the African-American community, then we would have accomplished our goal."
Like Dagit, Rodney Moses, vice president of talent acquisition and talent management at Invitrogen, thinks that diversity efforts must work to invigorate the entire industry, rather than a particular company. "We have a day job, which is to meet our customers' needs, but we also need to invest in the pipeline." To that end, Invitrogen is leading a new initiative that uses corporate funds to bolster science education. Called the San Diego Workforce Collaborative, the program is a combined effort by the State of California; a range of local technology and biotechnology employers; and the San Diego Workforce Partnership, an innovative job training and employment program that has pooled state and private resources to rejuvenate the local work force. Invitrogen hopes to augment the funds it already contributes to community development and scholarship opportunities by encouraging other San Diego biotech companies to join the collaborative. "It's an opportunity for the state to generate $1.3 million in scholarship money," says Moses. "That would be a huge win if we could get other companies involved."
Focusing Resources to Foster Talent
Even the most skilled and talented students, however, can have a hard time finding their way once graduation comes along. Most national science organizations have subgroups that help young African-American scientists navigate career planning, but more targeted organizations include JustGarciaHill, a virtual community that seeks to support minorities entering science careers, and the National Association for Blacks in Bio (NABB), a growing organization that works to create networking and communication opportunities between African-Americans in science careers. Chad Womack founded NABB to fill what he describes as a large gap in the work force pipeline. "There's no simple answer," he says of the lack of African-American scientists. "Part of it is recruitment and retention; not just getting people into the pipeline, but getting people in the pipeline out." NABB holds a national event, African-Americans in the Life Sciences (AALS), at the Biotech Industry Organization's annual conference; regional branches will soon provide further networking opportunities, and a new journal will publicize research openings and developments in critical issues such as health disparities. NABB also plans what Womack describes as "a biotech boot camp," a conference to help potential entrepreneurs learn how to contact investors, find financing, and commercialize technology.
Organizations like NABB may make it easier for companies to find talented African-American scientists. But for a company's diversity efforts to thrive, it must support employees internally, providing resources and connections that increase retention and promote talent. At Merck, Diversity Awards highlight the contributions of African-American scientists, among others, and the Black Employee Network offers a range of networking and support opportunities. The company also offers an innovative mentor-matching program, which works similarly to popular online services such as Match.com; it helps interested mentors meet other employees who share their professional goals and interests. Leveraging new technologies to support time-tested career strategies, the system can be a big help to a new employee searching for advice and guidance.
Looking Forward, Reaching Out
Most scientists agree that mentoring, whether formal or informal, is key to professional success. According to Amgen scientist Karla Savage, "There's a big transition going from academia to industry; things are a bit more formal and more organized, and mentors can help to figure it out." Like Merck, Amgen has a Black Employee Network (BEN), which provides opportunities for networking and professional development, brings in outside speakers, and helps employees meet other professionals who share their ambitions and experiences. The group also performs outreach, and in this it helps to bring diversity efforts full circle; employees who have benefited from diversity initiatives are eager to pass on what they've learned. In February, for example, the Amgen BEN held a youth summit to discuss the achievements of black scientists with local African-American students. "Young people are always so excited to see people who have impressive jobs," says Savage. "There's more to science than just being a doctor. We can help foster their career exploration as they grow older."
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."
Alethea Hannemann is a San Francisco-based freelance writer.
This feature was published in the 11 May issue of Science
Regional Focus: North Carolina — June 8