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Vol. LXI, No. 12
June 12, 2009

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Vision, Meet Village
Successful Outreach Draws From Cross-Section of NIH

On the front page...

Eric Scott thought maybe he’d be a science teacher at his local high school. In time, he’d get his master’s degree, which would make him eligible to teach at a community college. It wasn’t until a group from NIH visited his school, the University of North Carolina at Pembroke, that the idea of conducting medical research ever occurred to him. Now 3 years later, he’s pursuing a Ph.D. at UNC-Chapel Hill with longtime NIAID grantee Dr. Stephen Clarke.

Since 10th grade, Indee Smith had been interested in science. After her junior year in high school, she began feeding her appetite for chemistry and research. In 2006, she was at UNC-Pembroke when NIH came calling. She spent her next 2 summers here and ended up presenting research at a SACNAS (Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans) conference.


  Indee Smith  
  Indee Smith  

Scott and Smith, two minority graduates of a college in a rural community about 350 miles from Bethesda, represent a much larger harvest of potential scientists—physicians, nurses, pharmacists—all seeded more than 5 years ago by the Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity Management and nurtured by a host of other NIH components.


“It is a real challenge to improve diversity, especially as it relates to science,” explained Lawrence Self, OEODM director. “OEODM cannot do it alone. Our job is outreach—bringing together internal and external partners. As a result of the Powwow Project, we reached out to one of the most diverse schools in the nation, UNC-Pembroke.”

It was 5 years ago that Self and his deputy, Hilda Dixon, met with UNCP chancellor Dr. Allen Meadors to discuss a potential collaboration with NIH. They set 4 goals: NIH would provide summer internship opportunities to UNCP students. The partnership would seek to reinstate the school’s Minority Access to Research Careers (MARC) grant. UNCP would compete in NIH’s Extramural Associates Program. NIH would host events where faculty and students could learn more about careers in science.

Hilda Dixon (r), deputy director of NIH’s Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity Management, meets with Dr. Allen Meadors, chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Pembroke, and Sheila Brayboy, director of UNCP’s health careers opportunity program.   Dr. Yolanda Mock Hawkins directs the NIH Academy.
Hilda Dixon (r), deputy director of NIH’s Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity Management, meets with Dr. Allen Meadors, chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Pembroke, and Sheila Brayboy, director of UNCP’s health careers opportunity program.   Dr. Yolanda Mock Hawkins directs the NIH Academy.

“For success, OEODM believes ‘it takes a vision and a village,’” said Dixon, adapting an African proverb.

Now, NIH has hired 16 UNCP interns [with 4 conducting post-baccalaureate research with NIH or its grantees]. By competing for grants, UNCP has realized additional funds to improve its science and research programs. The school currently holds several RISE (Research Initiative for Scientific Enhancement) and MORE (Minority Opportunities in Research) grants, won an EA grant and hopes to compete successfully for a MARC grant soon. “UNCP is now able to navigate the NIH community,” Self said. “We are looking at next steps. Strong partners are the key to success.”

UNCP chancellor Meadors shared OEODM’s enthusiasm for the future. “We want to do more things with NIH,” he said. “We see collaborations in nursing. We would like to have more of our students examining the possibility of going to NIH to do science.”


Located in rural southeast North Carolina, about 45 miles south of Fayetteville, UNCP was founded in 1887 as the Croatan Normal School. When it opened with one instructor and 15 students, its mission was to train American Indian school teachers. By 1909, the school had moved to its current location in Pembroke, the heart of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina, near the Lumber River.

With a student enrollment of more than 6,300, the university, which became part of the University of North Carolina system in 1972, now offers 45 bachelor’s and 17 master’s degree programs. Total minority enrollment is 51 percent: 27 percent African American, 18 percent Native American and 3 percent each Hispanic and Asian/Pacific Islander.

Alexandria Cogdill, a UNCP graduate now working as a fellow in NCI’s Surgery Branch
Alexandria Cogdill, a UNCP graduate now working as a fellow in NCI’s Surgery Branch
Meadors pointed to a recent survey that found Pembroke students are among the best at getting hired in the sciences after graduation. “It reinforces what we already knew—that our science faculty does a good job of preparing our students,” he said. “We are just tremendously pleased with the progress we’ve made with the partnership. I’m excited at the opportunities our students have had. We have the most diverse enrollment in the South.”

A richly multicultural student population with a strong science department—“that’s what attracted NIH to Pembroke,” Self noted. “We knew we wanted to partner with them. We also knew that it would take a communal effort to really make it succeed.”

Meadors said for his students, seeing often is believing. “Most of our students come from rural backgrounds and have not had any experience seeing scientists and researchers,” he explained. “This, you cannot teach. When they go see the labs and the people conducting research, you just cannot generate that kind of excitement [in the classroom]. You have to taste it, smell it and grow it. Our biggest challenge is getting them to pack their bags and leave home. Once they get up there, and they get over the initial culture shock, they enjoy the experiences and do extremely well.”

Because of “tremendous support and guidance by UNCP administrator Sheila Brayboy,” Dixon said, “NIH was able to develop relationships with school faculty and earn trust from students to get them to come to NIH for the summer. Sheila is that day-to-day contact and we owe much success to her boundless energy and respect for and commitment to the Native American community.”

Village People

“The vision was OEODM’s,” Dixon said, “and the village [is] the collaboration of partners. NIH partners for this effort are numerous—they make it happen.” NIGMS’s Dr. Clifton Poodry facilitated the introduction of UNCP faculty with UNC-Chapel Hill faculty and the RISE grant became a reality. UNCP was not successful on its first attempt, but in 2007, Dr. Leonard Holmes became Pembroke’s first extramural associate. NIH’s “village” includes the endorsement of Dr. Michael Gottesman, NIH deputy director for intramural research, and the perseverance of Dr. Yolanda Mock Hawkins, director of the NIH Academy in August 2004, when she was approached for help with the UNCP effort.

Sarah Subaran   Eric Scott
UNCP grad Sarah Subaran (l) is an IRTA fellow in NIA’s Gerontology Research Center. Eric Scott is pursuing his Ph.D. at UNC-Chapel Hill with NIH grantee Dr. Stephen Clarke.

“We wanted to increase the number of minority students—specifically Native students—who wanted to come to NIH to do research,” Mock Hawkins said, describing how OEODM’s vision meshed with academy goals. By fall 2004, the small-but-growing NIH group had visited the UNCP campus to meet with students and instructors and held a faculty-student workshop at NIH. The two events, combined with multiple face-to-face and phone sessions in between, helped NIH put down roots with the community.

“We had to demonstrate to UNCP that we were sincere,” she said, “and that this was a long-term project. We weren’t going to make a lot of promises that we wouldn’t follow up on. We established a track record.”

Using a wide network of NIH scientists, Mock Hawkins spearheaded efforts to place students with NIH’ers such as Robert DeChristoforo of the Clinical Center pharmacy department and Dr. Jack Guralnik of NIA, who became preceptors for UNCP interns.

Next came logistics: Finding summer housing for the interns proved to be no small feat. Each student had unique needs. UNCP grad Scott, for example, had a lot more to consider than most students. Moving to Bethesda for first-hand lab experience also involved uprooting his wife and four children.

“We knew it was going to be expensive and we weren’t sure how we were going to manage,” he said. “[NIAMS scientific director] Dr. John O’Shea really came through for us. He found us a place to stay and we were able to get our kids settled into school here [in Bethesda]. We weren’t sure how it was all going to work out, but it did.”

Voices of Experience

If you listen to those who have benefited from the NIH-UNCP partnership, every single effort was appreciated. Eric Scott interned in Dr. Juan Rivera’s NIAMS immunology lab, studying better therapeutic treatments for allergy. His experience here only solidified his early commitment to give back.

“I still intend to teach,” he said. “I want to steer minority students into science. There’s still not enough exposure to science and research in African- American communities. I think it will be helpful if they see that I made it through these programs.”

After working in NIBIB science administration during summer 2006 and in a NIBIB intramural lab in summer 2007, Indee Smith now manages a lab for a community health and urgent care center, teaches a pharmacy technician class part-time and volunteers on the Pembroke Rescue Squad. “I loved the campus, the environment, the people—in general I just enjoyed the experience as a whole,” she said of her time at NIH. “I had never seen things like that before in my life and probably never will, only at NIH.”

Alexandria Cogdill, a UNCP graduate now working as a Cancer Research Training Award fellow in NCI’s Surgery Branch, agreed. “In addition to being a part of the cell production team [producing adoptive cell therapies for patients with advanced stages of cancer], I have had the opportunity to conduct translational research within the lab in an effort to minimize costs…[for] export of this effective treatment. This experience has opened my eyes to the depth of research conducted as well as the responsibility of those who conduct it…NIH has been a great way to network and form relationships that are influential in my career now and in the future.”

Another UNCP grad making NIH part of her career path is Sarah Subaran, who is currently about midway through a 2-year post-baccalaureate IRTA fellowship in NIA’s Gerontology Research Center.

“Being at the NIH has afforded me the experience of working with some of the top scientists in the world,” she noted. “I have learned so much throughout my time here, from imaging on the confocal microscope to working with cell cultures in the lab. In addition, this opportunity has helped me better prepare for med school in that I have already met the pre-health advisors and attended seminars on MCAT preparation.”

Smith concluded, “The partnership with NIH is a wonderful way for UNCP to help other young people from my community who may not have had an opportunity to experience a challenge like an internship or be a part of something this enriching. Some people just don’t understand the benefits of the program—all they see is the distance from their families. This is a big challenge for the Lumbees because growing up in such a tightly woven community, it is difficult to just leave. But once you’re away and you’re working, most of that fades quickly. The work consumes you and the atmosphere engulfs you. All you have to do is become the sponge! I have an intense desire for any person but especially my Lumbee people to further themselves and get all they can from every source of knowledge available. That is why I promote this opportunity as well as any other one that may be available to students now.”

Three Pembroke students will join the NIH 2009 summer program.NIHRecord Icon

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