Director Of New Health Agency Program Determined To Elevate Status Of Minority Biomedical Scientists

Elevate Status Of Minority Biomedical Scientists Author: KAREN YOUNG KREEGER, pp.1 Date: July 11,1994 Researchers, National Institutes of Health administrators, and government officials say the first director of a newly created NIH minority-support program is a fitting choice to lead an office whose creation is long overdue. The new leader is appropriate, they say, because he is both a veteran advocate of minorities in science and

Jul 11, 1994
Karen Kreeger

Elevate Status Of Minority Biomedical Scientists Author: KAREN YOUNG KREEGER, pp.1
Date: July 11,1994

Researchers, National Institutes of Health administrators, and government officials say the first director of a newly created NIH minority-support program is a fitting choice to lead an office whose creation is long overdue. The new leader is appropriate, they say, because he is both a veteran advocate of minorities in science and a minority scientist who has experienced the ups and downs of federal science funding.

Supporters say Clifton A. Poodry is an apt choice to head the Minority Opportunities in Research program because of his relevant personal as well as professional experiences. For example, the 50-year-old member of the Tonawanda Seneca Indian tribe served on the boards of directors of both the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES), based in Boulder, Colo., and the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science in Santa Cruz, Calif. He also worked on the Advisory Committee on Minority Science Education of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

"I think it will bolster confidence in the [minority scientist] community because he is there," says AISES's executive director, Norbert S. Hill, Jr. "It's not like having someone there who is trying to figure us out. He can hit the ground running."

"I've been there," says Poodry, who was raised on the Tonawanda Seneca Indian Reservation, located in western New York, about his own experiences. "I grew up on a reservation where there was really no inclination of what a professional career would be. There was no impetus, no push to develop in that way."

But he says he did find encouragement at home: "One of the things I've come to realize is that one of my role models is my mother, in that she said, 'Hey, you can do it.' "

He says that his M.S.-degree studies in biology at the State University of New York in Buffalo wer'e a turning point for him, opening his eyes to the opportunities that a science career could offer. From there, he says, "I got new mentors along the way."

In addition to coming from a poor community and the barriers he's had to overcome because of that, Poodry notes, "I've also been a professor for 22 years. I've been there with regard to fighting for research grants, winning some and losing some. I know what the competition is like."

Poodry, a developmental geneticist, wrote a 1970 paper, "The ultrastructure of the developing leg in Drosophila melanogaster" (C.A. Poodry, H.A. Schneiderman, Wilhelm Roux Archives, 166:1-44), that was recognized as a "Citation Classic"--an article that has accumulated a high number of citations within a particular journal and/or field--by the Philadelphia-based Institute for Scientific Information. To date, the article has been cited more than 200 times.

After receiving his Ph.D. in biology from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland in 1971 and doing postdoctoral work at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, in 1972, he came to the University of California, Santa Cruz. He remained there from 1972 until being named to the NIH post, most recently as the school's acting associate vice chancellor for undergraduate affairs.

Poodry says he has only one regret about leaving academic life and taking on his new position: "I love being in the lab. I'll definitely miss that part."

--K.Y.K. In March, NIH director Harold Varmus named Clifton A. Poodry--a professor of biology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, for 22 years--to head the Minority Opportunities in Research (MORE) program of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS).

Scientists and health officials say that the appointment of Poodry--a developmental geneticist and an advocate for underrepresented groups in science--bodes well for minorities in biomedicine.

"He's a leader in academics and a role model that people look to," says Norbert S. Hill, Jr., executive director of the Boulder, Colo.-based American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES), referring to Poodry's long record as a researcher and educator and his heritage as a member of the Tonawanda Seneca Indian tribe (see story on page 8).

John Diggs, vice president for biomedical research at the Washington, D.C.-based Association of American Medical Colleges and former deputy director for extramural research at NIH, describes Poodry's new job as a "critical appointment." At the same time, he cautions that Poodry "has his work cut out for himself."

Diggs says Poodry's job will be a tough one because it is getting harder to recruit minorities into science owing to many factors, including a decreasing number of role models and reduced funding. According to the Science & Engineering Indicators (National Science Board, Science & Engineering Indicators- 1993, Washington, D.C., United States Government Printing Office, 1993 [NSB 93-1])--a biennial compendium of quantitative information about the current state of research, education, and employment in U.S. science and technology--the representation of African Americans among natural scientists declined from 3.1 percent to 2.7 percent between 1983 and 1992.

MORE was created as the umbrella office for coordinating and enhancing the efforts of two well-established NIGMS initiatives--the Minority Access to Research Careers (MARC) and Minority Biomedical Research Support (MBRS) programs, according to NIH officials. MARC and MBRS provide extramural funds for research and training to institutions whose enrollments are primarily drawn from minority groups. These groups include African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, and Pacific Islanders.

Ruth Kirschstein, deputy director of NIH and director of NIGMS from 1974 to 1993--when the MORE office was being developed--says that Poodry's "outstanding" record of commitment to research, teaching, and minority activities, along with the existing staffs of MARC and MBRS, are a "dynamite package" to achieve MORE's primary focus of increasing the number of minorities engaged in biomedical research in the U.S.

Poodry, who is both a past recipient of and a reviewer for MARC and MBRS grants, says his primary responsibility is to provide leadership--within both NIH and the scientific community at large--to improve the representation of minorities in biomedicine. "I believe that this position involves the promotion, guidance, and oversight of the programs, as well as a constant rethinking and ongoing evaluation of what we do in both existing programs and the development and implementation of new initiatives," he says.

"I will also try to engage a broader cross-section of the scientific community in the issues of underrepresentation of minority groups."

Poodry says MORE needs to analyze the current numbers and representation of various minority groups in its programs-- and in biomedicine in general--before it can formulate specific plans for adding minorities to the field. He advocates an equal emphasis on quality and preparedness of minority students and faculty in concert with these goals.

"We can turn out numbers, but if those numbers aren't, in fact, joining the ranks of the very competitive, then we may not have come as far along as we want to be," says Poodry.

However, he adds, there is more to the picture. "I'd like to know where we stack up against those numbers. For example, we can talk about the percentage of our trainees that have gone on to become faculty or get research grants, but we'd [also] like to know how that compares to the average graduate training from, say, Middle America or from Ivy League universities."

For example, according to NSF's Indicators, in 1992, African Americans made up 3 percent of the natural scientists employed, while Hispanics constituted 3 percent, and Asian Americans and other minority groups represented 7 percent.

Addressing all stages in the development of a researcher's training--from high school through postdoctoral work--is a top priority for the MORE program, say NIH administrators. This entails, among other efforts, coordinating the activities of NIH's Office of Research on Minority Health's Bridges to the Baccalaureate Degree and Bridges to the Doctoral Degree programs with comprehensive MARC and MBRS educational initiatives, Poodry explains. The Bridges programs support underrepresented minority student populations at two stages in their training that he says are key to increasing the number of minorities in biomedicine: moving from an M.S. to a Ph.D. and advancing from a two-year community college to a four-year institution. MARC and MBRS, through a number of programs, provide grants to minority students and faculty from the high school to the postdoctoral level.

For fiscal year 1993-94, the combined budget for MARC, MBRS, and the Bridges programs is nearly $52 million, providing extramural support for nearly 700 faculty researchers and 1,800 students.

"I think it's essential that minority programs are coordinated within institutes and within NIH," says Yvonne Maddox, deputy director of the biophysics and physiological sciences program at NIGMS, who served as acting director of the MARC program for 13 months. MORE is necessary, according to Maddox, to "assure that the entire pipeline [of a person's career and training] is covered."

"We were beginning to accumulate a fair number of programs that are oriented to different aspects of the same goal, which is trying to get more minorities into science, preferably at the Ph.D. level," says Marvin Cassman, acting director of NIGMS. "It was time to get someone who could coordinate all of these [in order to] optimize our impact with the funds we have available."