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Genome Grantees Discuss Minority Participation in Research

By Geoff Spencer

Holding to a commitment developed at an April 2000 meeting, the National Human Genome Research Institute recently held a workshop to help extramural grantees increase the number of underrepresented minorities participating in genomics and ethical, legal, and social implications (ELSI) research.

The program "Strategies for Increasing the Number of Underrepresented Minorities Participating in Genomics Research," included representatives from academic institutions and professional societies who have had success in creating programs that train minorities for careers in biomedical research. NHGRI staff members also attended to exchange information with grantees and offer them support.

"NHGRI has not been successful in the past recruiting minorities," said Dr. Francis Collins, director of NHGRI. "The very nature of genomics and ELSI research demands inclusion and diverse points of view.

Dr. Clifton Poodry of NIGMS addresses genome grantees.

"We want the best and brightest from all the groups of the world," he continued. "We must knock down the barriers and make the field of genomics a welcome one."

Collins charged the participants to work together to develop creative opportunities and training programs at their institutions to make the field of genomics a diverse one.

Dr. Cliff Poodry, director of the Minority Opportunities in Research Office at NIGMS, said there are many untapped recruiting opportunities for connecting with the pool of minority students from majority and minority institutions.

"Currently, a reasonable goal is to have 10 percent minority participation on any [training] grant," said Poodry. "This is reasonable because in biology and chemistry, minorities represent 12.5 percent of bachelor degrees." According to Poodry, these students are not pursuing medicine but entering graduate school.

Completion rates for minority students in Ph.D. programs are currently only 6 percent nationally. However, one-half of the minority students entering graduate school do not complete their doctoral studies. If there was a way to retain these students, the number of minorities completing their doctoral studies would immediately double, predicted Poodry.

One way of tapping the pool of minority students, he suggested, is to "start speaking to faculty at undergraduate institutions to recruit students for graduate school.

"You have to show them the excitement of the future," he said, "and their faculty must be sure that these kids are going to be taken care of by a grant and that they'll have exciting opportunities."

Ed Smith, an associate professor at Virginia Tech, was a meeting participant.

Poodry encouraged attendance at scientific meetings that cater to minority students such as the Society for Chicano and Native Americans in Science and the annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students. "These meetings are a wonderful way to make a human connection with the students," he said. "Offer to speak at these meetings or their universities to excite them about the future of science and how they can contribute. Go look at their posters and get them excited talking about their science. I want kids of all groups to be a part of this. It can be done. No excuses!"

The meeting included presentations by program representatives from universities and professional societies who shared their strategies for building minority-training programs. Dr. Richard I. Morimoto of Northwestern University discussed the need for a high level of institutional commitment; establishing partnerships with other universities to create a pipeline of students that would benefit both institutions; and, most important, the involvement of faculty at all levels of the training program. "The magnitude of the recruitment effort must be matched by the retention effort through mentoring," said Morimoto.

Dr. Gayle Slaughter of Baylor College of Medicine agreed that mentorship is a key component for any successful minority training program; in order for students to succeed, she said, they must have academic support. Students at Baylor have faculty mentors as well as a full range of academic services, including individualized course plans, a tutoring and resource library, minority speaker seminars and professional development workshops.

Mary Ellen Jackson, program coordinator for the Meyerhoff Program at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, insisted grantees follow these strategies when establishing programs, but cautioned that it takes time to see results.

"We began the program in 1990, and we're just now beginning to see the fruit of our labors," she said. "We have our first graduate student graduating this year and will have six next year."

Grantees also were given advice when considering minority students for their programs. "Don't put stock in minority GRE scores," advised Dr. Steven Soper, professor of chemistry at Louisiana State University, speaking about the cultural bias of such standardized tests. "Pay attention to grade point averages, extracurricular activities and interviews."

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