For Better Science, Just Add Color

The tiny town of Rolette, ND, (population 994) is distant in miles and mindset from New York City, where Lyle Best received his undergraduate science degree while at Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

By | November 7, 2005


The tiny town of Rolette, ND, (population 994) is distant in miles and mindset from New York City, where Lyle Best received his undergraduate science degree while at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. But after serving Rolette's largely Chippewa population in the following decades as a family practitioner, Best got to thinking about how he might help kindle and nurture a love of science among local young people.

Fueled by a personal interest in medical genetics, he worked with Turtle Mountain Community College in nearby Belcourt, helping it secure its first-ever National Institutes of Health clinical research grant. The grant will focus on Native American genetics and how it might factor in preeclampsia.

The $150,000 initiative may end up providing important clues to preeclampsia and prenatal screening for the disorder in this population. "Our main focus is really on engaging and training students at the college in the very idea of medical research," Best explains. "To get them up to speed on how it works: How do you apply for a research grant? How do you set up this type of initiative?"

Best and other researchers who hope to persuade young people from underrepresented minorities to consider science as a career have their work cut out for them. While women may have made great strides toward more equal representation in the life sciences, ethnic minorities have not. Leaders in the field blame bad science education, the paucity of minority science faculty, the expense of continuing education, and the lure of industry. The only thing that's clear is that the problem is a knotty one. Innovative approaches such as Best's are clearly needed, while experts also are calling for efforts to evaluate the effectiveness of existing programs designed to increase minority participation in the sciences.

Statistics from the National Science Foundation make the picture starkly clear. At the beginning of this decade, US-born blacks, who represent 12% of Americans, held just 4.4% of science and engineering (S&E) jobs requiring the minimum of a bachelor's degree. Making up 14% of the population at large, US-born Hispanics account for 3.4% of S&E positions. And while Native Americans make up about 1% of the US population, they hold just 0.3% of S&E jobs.


The situation is even worse at the PhD and professoriate level. "When we look at the data from the NSF database and elsewhere, we only see a modest increase in the numbers of underrepresented students who are getting PhDs," says Clifton Poodry, a Native American bioscience researcher who's also director of the Minority Opportunities and Research Division at the National Institute for General Medical Sciences.

"And when we look at the flow of minority students into academia, we're stunned at how poor it is," he says. "There are exceptions, of course, such as Erich Jarvis, a [black] Waterman award winner now at Duke University – as good as it gets. But the numbers that are making it into academia and then ultimately into the ranks of those who get NIH research grants are incredibly small."

NSF statistics reveal that by 2001, just 2.8% of employed S&E doctorate holders were black, 2.7% were Hispanic, and 0.3% Native American. More up-to-date statistics from the Commission on Professionals in Science and Technology (CPST) suggests that these rates have remained static over the past few years.


That's not to say great strides haven't been made. "There was a great deal of enthusiasm from both supporters and institutions to try and bring in minority faculty in the 1970s, right after the civil rights movement," says neurobiologist George Langford, dean of the College of Sciences and Mathematics at Dartmouth College. "But you just don't see that level of support now."

Langford, who is African American, credits his own success on getting the right support and mentoring at exactly the right time in his academic training. But he wonders if those conditions exist for most minority kids today. "Without more faculty from minority groups, I think it's going to be hard to mount the effort to convince students to go into the sciences," he says.

Why the slowdown? "At the baccalaureate level, it's almost as if it's tracked major civil rights actions," says CPST director Eleanor Babco. Recent Supreme Court decisions restricting minority-recruitment by US colleges and universities haven't helped matters, she says, and "since there hasn't been major civil rights action over the last decade or so, the numbers kind of plateaued."

A close look at NSF statistics reveals an even tougher problem, she says. "If you subtract the social and behavioral sciences from the equation, you get a different picture: There's even less representation [of minorities] in the natural sciences."

For example, of the more than 21,800 black S&E graduate students attending US institutions in 2001, more than half (12,761) were majoring in fields such as psychology or the social sciences. In contrast, the NSF stats show just 129 black grad students majoring in biochemistry in 2001, and only 54 majoring in genetics.


These trends worry Langford, though he says that minority interest in the sciences remains as strong as ever. "At Dartmouth, we found that for the freshman class, there was the same percent of minority kids expressing an interest in the sciences as for whites," he says. "But one of the things we have to address is to figure out how to make sure that kids who show that strong interest when they enter college stay in the sciences, and don't go off into other majors."

Financial factors are bound to play a role, depending on family background. "When you have an income of $30,000 for a whole family, the idea of borrowing that amount of money to go to graduate school is incredible. But if your family has an income of $120,000 you have a much different perspective," notes Shirley Malcom, head of the Directorate for Education and Human Resources Programs at the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Often, gifted minority undergrads settle for their bachelor's degrees and then head for the lucrative, welcoming arms of industry, says Malcom. "Industry takes a very different view on minorities. For industry, it's not just about 'doing the right thing.' There's a real sense there that there's a business imperative to have a diverse workforce because we can get a jump on the competition. There's the new perspectives minorities bring, the markets they might understand, and that connection to the rest of the world."


Jean Bradbury, head of science policy external relations at Pfizer's division of global research and development, echoes those sentiments. "It's gotten trendy to talk about diversity, but even before it got trendy people were recognizing that when you have project teams and you function globally, a truly diverse group will come at things with a different perspective," she says. "They bring a challenging, rich debate and you end up with robust, thorough solutions."

This focus on diversity of opinion is something many pharmaceutical companies are trying to nurture, Bradbury says, especially in light of recent regulatory troubles that have tarnished their public image. "If you're working in an industry like the pharmaceutical industry, where you absolutely survive on creativity and innovation, you're just not going to get that kind of approach if you recruit one sort of mindset," she says.

According to Bradbury, Pfizer's definition of "minorities" stretches beyond race and culture to include individuals from different business arenas. "For example, we try and bring people in from say, the oil industry," she says, to see how they tackle specific challenges. Even though the approach can seem counterintuitive, "we value that new perspective."

But while the face of industry may be changing at the level of the lab or lower-tier management, full equality hasn't made inroads into the boardroom. "I think that when you get to that more rarified level of an organization, people become much more risk-averse in their hiring," Bradbury says. "There's less acceptance of not hiring in your own likeness. I see it even in my own leadership team. We joke about it, but there it is."

Even at lower positions in the corporate hierarchy, race can still affect job compensation. According to 2001 NSF statistics, the average 40- to 49-year-old with a doctorate working in the life sciences made $64,000 a year if he or she was white, $59,000 if black, and just $57,000 if Hispanic.


Back in academia, Langford says that race has had an impact on even his stellar career. "One of the most important issues minority scientists face is networking," he points out. "It's important to have a network of cohorts throughout the graduate schools, to help develop working collaborations through the professionals you know. The shortage of minority scientists and the difficulty in crossing racial and cultural barriers makes that more difficult."

On the up side, one recent study of black PhD chemists found that, despite agreeing that discrimination does exist, most polled says they'd go right back into chemistry if they had to do it all over again. "Even though race was an issue, they didn't let it cripple or stifle their achievement," says Babco.

And the achievements of minority researchers such as Jarvis, Langford, and others continue to enrich the academic record, says Vincent Santiago, acting director of the division of human resource development at NSF and the foundation's collection of diversity-focused programs. He says that one solution to boosting the number of nonwhite scientists and academics is to improve the quality of education they receive at minority-serving institutions nationwide.

"We're currently funding 14 of these institutions at a level of $1 million a year for up to 10 years, to become strong in a narrowly focused research area," he explains. A partial list of these colleges and universities includes California State University in Los Angeles, Alabama's Tuskegee University, Florida International University in Miami, and Howard University in Washington, DC.

"They're all doing cutting-edge research," Santiago says. "It's first rate. So students don't have to go to 'flagship,' majority institutions to benefit. We've got people who graduate, do their postdoc at Berkeley, and come back. It's that good." In addition, NSF's Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation program last year graduated 25,000 minority students with science, engineering, and math undergraduate degrees from institutions around the country.


And yet the experts agreed much more needs to be done before minorities are participating in the sciences at levels matching their share of the population. For Babco, it means making science "sexier" to kids in general, but especially to minority teenagers.

"We need to convince students that yes, science and engineering is hard but it's not just for math and science geeks, that it can be fun, interesting, lucrative, and accessible." Highly visible science heroes, – a kind of Colin Powell or Tiger Woods for the Petri-dish set – would help, she says, as would a hard look at outreach programs already in place. "We need to find out what works and what doesn't."

Further, mentoring from faculty, especially minority faculty who can serve as powerful role models, "really makes a difference," says Langford. "Even the brightest kids are intimidated by the idea of becoming a scientist," he adds. "It's really the encouragement they get that matters."

Back in North Dakota, Carty Monette is the Chippewa president of Turtle Mountain Community College, founded in 1972 and supported, in part, by funding from NSF's Tribal Colleges and Universities Program. Monette says he believes that, through their own "ways of knowing" and close connection to the land, Native Americans can bring a unique, enriching perspective to the practice of science. And he believes science can and will enhance Native American lives as well.

"Native American kids are learning that science is more in tune with who they are, and they love it," he says. "They're getting excited about it. We can see that in our institutions and in our schools." He adds, "I can go back to where we began and look at the progress over the years to where we are now, and I see a tremendous change in that area, but we still have a long way to go."

Seed programs, such as Best's genetics study, are helping tribal youth discover science, and scientific research, for themselves, Monette says. And slowly but surely, interest is building. "Right now we have five students involved," Best says. "One, especially, is planning to go further and major somewhere else in biology, perhaps working in fisheries. And it's got him thinking about focusing on genetics."

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