NIH Record - National Institutes of Health

Bennett Students, Faculty Launch New NIEHS Connection

Tyson sits with two students during a mentoring session
Dr. Fred Tyson (c) met with students during the speed mentoring session and participated on the career panel.

Photo:  Credit Steve McCaw

A dozen students and faculty from Bennett College, a historically black college in Greensboro, N.C., launched new connections with NIEHS recently. The visitors enjoyed a tour of the facility, career panel discussion, speed mentoring with NIEHS staff and grants advice for faculty. The director of NIEHS’s Office of Science Education and Diversity (OSED) provided an overview of diversity in research and training.

Visiting school groups are typically treated to a tour and career panel organized by John Schelp, OSED special assistant for community engagement and outreach. For the Bennett College visit, OSED and the NIH Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) built on that model by adding elements such as mentoring and grants sessions.

“Mentors can help you figure out what you want to do and what you’re actually qualified to do,” said Dr. Fred Tyson of the NIEHS extramural program. “They are great people to bounce ideas off of.” He spoke as part of a career panel that included Robbie Majors, a grants management specialist, and Dr. Mercedes Arana, a biologist in the DNA replication fidelity group. Arana encouraged students to pursue a career they love. 

“Always think about your passion and let that be your driving force,” she advised.

During the speed mentoring event, students rotated through brief meetings with more than a dozen staff from across the institute. Sophomore Aariella Houston, a chemistry and chemical engineering major, said she was inspired. “I felt encouraged to keep pursuing my academic and career goals,” she said. “I couldn’t be more thankful for this amazing opportunity.” 

“Coordinating this event with NIEHS has been a great experience,” said Gerard Roman of EDI. “NIEHS has a solid diversity program in place and we wanted to showcase their success.” The institute works closely with surrounding school systems, historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and other higher education institutions. 

large group of people smile
NIH and Bennett College participants mark the event with a group photo.

Photo:  Steve McCaw

“We are honored and pleased to provide access and opportunity to students and faculty from nearby colleges and universities,” said OSED director Dr. Ericka Reid. EDI complements the effort by providing further partnership and networking opportunities. Roman, who is based at NIEHS, collaborated with Victoria Gross from the Bethesda EDI office. “We hope to showcase this successful example of a collaborative effort with other NIH institutes and centers,” he added.

According to Gross, data shows that NIH has a lower than expected representation of black scientists, including tenured and tenure track researchers. So Gross seeks opportunities to build connections with students at HBCUs. “Our goal is to go beyond a one-time visit,” she said. “We want to encourage relationships that foster information sharing, networking and collaboration.”

The power of networking was evident in the origins of the event, which arose from the suggestion of Alexis Branch, an intern in Gross’s office. “She was a Bennett graduate and she thought it would be great to arrange a visit to NIEHS,” Gross explained. 

“I know we’re going to have at least 10 students applying for [summer and academic-year] research internships,” said Michael Cotton, associate professor of biology at Bennett and a co-organizer of the event. “We are looking forward to developing and sustaining this relationship.” 

“I think our students are very excited,” added Dr. Willietta Gibson, also an associate professor of biology at Bennett. OSED already facilitates an exchange effort with Fayetteville State University, another HBCU, and the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. 

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