Historically, Black/African Americans, Hispanic/Latinxs, and Native Americans have been and remain consistently underrepresented in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). Even though 32 percent of the United States population are from groups considered an underrepresented minority (URM) in science, URMs only account for 3 to 4 percent of tenure track medical school faculty in Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) member institutions. This means that the number of scientists from URM backgrounds hired as faculty in medical school basic science departments is nowhere near the actual number of potential candidates.
Jorge (Jay) Ortiz-Carpena, a PhD candidate in the Immunology Graduate Group in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, originally did not consider becoming a faculty member. “I rarely saw myself reflected in academia, but during my time at Penn, I became more inspired to consider a career as a professor. But I had some challenges trying to find a way to get on that career trajectory.”
Jose S. Campos, a PhD candidate also with Penn’s Immunology Graduate Group, found himself in a similar situation. “There are certainly some barriers for URM scientists. In part, it’s due to limited exposure to different career paths early on in our education. Similar to Jay, I originally did not think about becoming a professor, but the more time I’ve spent here at Penn, the more I realized it was what I wanted.”
Alejandra Fausto, a PhD candidate in the Cell and Molecular Biology - Microbiology, Virology, and Parasitology (CAMB-MVP) program, realized how important peer support for minorities in science could be during her undergrad and especially recently. “This past year and a half for me has really highlighted the need for the science community to come together and discuss the work that remains to be done to promote justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion for URM in STEM.”
Their shared passion for supporting URM scientists, and drive to address the challenges students face in working towards career opportunities in academia, drew Ortiz-Carpena, Campos, and Fausto together to make a change.
In order to provide a voice for other URM scientists and offer support, they began planning to create a group that would be a trainee-led coalition advocating for scientists and physicians historically marginalized and excluded in STEM across all degree and professional levels.
“We did not want to ask for a seat at the table. We wanted to break the mold and create our own table, where everyone would have a seat,” Ortiz-Carpena said.
In October 2020, Ortiz-Carpena founded the Penn Interdisciplinary Network for Scientists Promoting Inclusion, Retention, and Equity (Penn INSPIRE) with Campos and Fausto joining as co-directors. The group’s main areas of focus are to create inclusive platforms and advocate for and implement initiatives to empower individuals with diverse ethnicities, backgrounds, gender identities, and sexual orientations — those at the margins of academia.
Penn INSPIRE’s goals are to promote a more inclusive environment within the Penn community where scientists and physicians from diverse backgrounds continue to be celebrated, and are provided with the tools and resources to attain positions at the highest levels of influence within the scientific enterprise. So far, Penn INSPIRE has hosted events including a panel for URM students, a workshop on using Biorender (a software tool to help scientists create and share professional scientific figures), a postdoc seminar series, and authored a forum piece in Cell Host & Microbe that highlights the importance of supporting URM scientists particularly in the career transition from trainee to faculty.
“Penn has an incredible community that truly cares about promoting justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion,” Fausto said.
To date, Penn INSPIRE has recruited 22 Penn trainees to the executive board and 28 Penn faculty to serve as advisors, both composed in majority by URMs. They have hosted about 70 attendees at their virtual events that are a mix of faculty, postdocs, and students.
“The amount of support we have received has left us speechless,” Campos said.
The Penn INSPIRE team also wants to encourage the development of strategic partnerships, particularly in fundraising and philanthropy to secure funding for programs at Penn aimed at increasing diversity within the graduate and medical school, as well as at the faculty level. In August, the group will hold a Community Forum on the COVID-19 Pandemic with public health and research experts. They are also putting together plans to organize a science festival within the West Philadelphia and Penn communities to foster community engagement. Their hope is to have this science festival become an annual event that will also support the local community, by contracting local Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC)-run restaurants, musicians, and artists.
Another major goal for the group is to influence the recruitment and retention of the next generation of scientists and scholars through partnerships with organizations within Penn and with community-based groups in the greater Philadelphia area. They are currently developing a pilot STEM Activism Academy designed to inspire even more advocates for those at the margins of academia.
The group is also working towards creating pathways for mentorship, aiming to establish a leadership academy in diversity, equity, and inclusion in the future for both biomedical PhD students and MD students in the Perelman School of Medicine.
As the group continues to make its presence known, Ortiz-Carpena, Campos, and Fausto say that they want to remind everyone that Penn INSPIRE is more than a student organization of scientists, it’s a community.