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Filling the Diversity Pipeline, One Student at a Time

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Minorities in biomedical education are growing, but draining away once they get farther along in their careers, according to a study covered this month by The Atlantic. Kenneth Gibbs Jr., an immunologist and science-policy expert at the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, looked at the number of graduates and assistant professors in the science departments of medical schools in the United States between 1980 and 2013. During that time, the number of new doctorates from underrepresented groups grew nine-fold, but the number of assistant professors from those same groups grew by only 2.6-fold. This disparity did not exist for whites and Asians.

This is the trendline that Arnaldo Diaz, PhD, assistant dean for Research Training Programs in Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine, has been working to reverse. At Penn there are many opportunities to make a difference, and Diaz’s work is part of a group of initiatives dedicated to improving diversity and inclusion.

High school students have the six-week internship at the Institute for Regenerative Medicine or the Med School Boot Camp. And for undergrads, there’s the Summer Undergraduate Internship Program, a 10-week program to give underrepresented students experience in biomedical research. PennPREP (Post-Baccalaureate Research Education Program) fills the gap between undergrad and grad school, with one- to two-year research experiences for students who have completed their undergraduate degree and are interested in pursuing a PhD in biomedical sciences.

To address another joint on the pipeline Diaz and colleagues in the Biomedical Graduate Studies program partnered with seven other Schools at Penn, along with the Offices of the Vice Provost for University Life and Vice Provost for Education, to organize the first Penn Honors Diversity (PHD) Symposium. Earlier this fall, nearly 90 undergraduate students from 35 colleges in the Mid-Atlantic states gathered for the symposium. The meeting emphasized student diversity and aimed to particularly attract underrepresented students, especially younger students who are interested in learning more about a PhD-level education.  

“We organized this event to shore up the researcher pipeline at an earlier stage,” Diaz said. “We want to show undergraduates what a PhD is all about and what skills you need to attain one. We want to make getting a PhD more accessible.” He adds that the organizers also wanted to reach out to regional schools, an audience they had not interacted with before.

Raquel Castellanos, PhD, research outreach coordinator for the Program for Research Initiatives in Science and Math (PRISM) and an adjunct assistant professor in the John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City University of New York, attended the symposium with five students three juniors and two seniors who were selected to present their research projects. “It was an eye-opening experience for them because not only did they hear about the wonderful programs and supportive network at Penn, but they had the opportunity to actually see themselves at Penn,” Castellanos said. “The students really connected with Arnaldo and received valuable advice about their applications to the graduate and summer programs.”

Of the five John Jay students who attended, two are currently applying to graduate programs and three to summer research programs. As an administrator, the symposium also offered Castellanos a networking opportunity and introduction to the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions.

The symposium allowed Joselin Vargas, a senior at Stony Brook University majoring in Biology, to interact with current students in the MD/PhD program. “This was important to me in particular because I am interested in a dual degree with a concentration in cancer biology,” Vargas said.

“In addition to giving me the opportunity to broaden my network, it also helped me further solidify my goals,” said Eudorah Vital, a biochemistry and molecular biology major at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. “After meeting with many faculty while at Penn, and hearing their advice during panel discussions, I gained a broader understanding of the graduate school process, how I should best prepare for it, and how to find the school that best suits me.”

Kaleb Bogale, a senior at the Pennsylvania State University majoring in Biology, noted that his experience was fast-paced and very rewarding. “I learned how Penn faculty and alumni utilized their PhDs,” Bogale said. “Something unique about the symposium was an interesting panel discussion led by Penn alumni working in research and development in the pharmaceutical industry. “

After the symposium, Bogale will be to applying to the PennPREP program to conduct research at Penn. For Diaz, this is one measure of success for this first symposium – filling the pipeline, one student at a time.

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