It's About Who You Know ...

Function at Hunter College of the City University of New York is among the most diverse in the sciences.

Nov 7, 2005
Charles Choi
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Photo: Jason Varney Photography

With eight minority professors and 15 women among 40 scientists, the Center for Study of Gene Structure & Function at Hunter College of the City University of New York is among the most diverse in the sciences. A key tool in center director Robert Dottin's recruiting efforts is the network for minority scientists known as JustGarciaHill.

Such networks can prove crucial to helping minorities and women in the sciences. "They're really important for scientists of color. It's a broad generalization, but traditionally we come into science with a smaller network than average. You need networks to advance your career. It's all about who you know, how you can write a grant, who you can make a phone call to for help," says Alissa Myrick, board member of Brothers Building Diversity in the Sciences.

Conversations that Dave Vigerust of St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis has had with senior members of the Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) "have been really enlightening on what you usually have to do to get to a number of career points: how you become independent, how you become successful in writing grants, how you manage a lab. It's very illustrative to see how different people have taken the path to be successful in science."

Many organizations for minority scientists reach out to life science students. For instance, the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students attracts more than 2,000 students and faculty nationwide. "It's really important to cultivate networks early on. It's the people [that] students meet there who are going to be their future reviewers and collaborators. And people never forget the people they played pool with," says Mekbib Gemeda, who helps manage JustGarciaHill and is director of the office of diversity affairs at New York University School of Medicine.

GETTING THE PROS INVOLVED

Networks focused on postgraduate and professional career progression among minority life scientists are an emerging phenomenon, says Iesha O'Deneal, manager of diversity programs at the New York Academy of Sciences.

"The majority of our membership are students, at about 74 percent," says Pam Silas, executive director of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society, which has roughly 3,000 members. "Past college, we don't see them for the first 10 years in the workforce."

"Now we're starting planning sessions this year to change that," Silas says. "We have over 15,000 alumni not active in the organization, so as we move forward our goal is to plan additional resources to maintain offerings to professionals." SACNAS president Marigold Linton says that her group, with its 15,000 members, is moving toward more services for professionals as well.

A new virtual community (http://www.communityzero.com/minoritypostdoc) from the SACNAS postdoc committee offers message boards and chat rooms, community calendars, online polls, job and fellowship opportunity postings, career advice, and archiving features for images and data files, all through a Web interface.

"Postdocs are busy and can't always login, so we're hoping to supplement the virtual community with conference calls to hopefully get more postdocs involved. Hopefully by developing more personal friendships for networking rather than just committee or board work, they'll go ahead and follow up on the Web," says Alberto Roca, cochair of the SACNAS postdoc committee. "Our first postdoc conferencing call had three people, including myself, but I was surprised by how fruitful that turned out, since one of the others was in bioinformatics like I am, so we had things to work on. It's not just a personal chat line; it's a way to make more productive use of our science talents."

On a regional level, the New York Academy of Sciences established the Women Investigators Network (WIN) and the Network for Minority Investigators (NMI), focusing on helping graduate students and postdocs. "These are the groups that really need to be supported and encouraged to continue in their scientific careers," O'Deneal says.

WIN, launched in 2004, is the larger of the two at 600 members, while NMI, started in February 2005, has 40 members so far. The academy offers online access to briefings where one can see slides from meetings. To serve both groups, the academy plans to bring together researchers from across industry to talk about their careers in science.

COMMUNICATING ACROSS DISCIPLINES

JustGarciaHill is oriented toward professional development of underrepresented minorities in the sciences nationwide. Dottin, JustGarciaHill's program director, says the group grew out of a database, built for the Coalition for the Advancement of Blacks in Biomedical Sciences.

"Apart from minority-affairs committees at professional associations such as the Society for Neuroscience or locally in their own institutions, we didn't see any venues for minority scientists on the professional level. That is really the rationale for JustGarciaHill," Gemeda says. "We thought it was very important to create an area where people could communicate across disciplines. And even within disciplines, you can have more than 25,000 people at a Society for Neuroscience meeting, and it can be very hard to find people there unless they have receptions for minorities or women."

JustGarciaHill is funded by an NIH grant to Sigma Xi, so its membership of scientists and graduate students is currently focused on biomedical research. Membership is free, and the organization has grown to 6,000 members from 2,000 four years ago before its grant. Dottin expects more than 1,000 new members next year.

Its Web site, justgarciahill.org, hosts a database where members can post their resumes, biographies, and other personal data, as well as list whether they want to be mentors or mentees or participate as speakers or reviewers. The database is searchable by criteria such as location and research expertise. "If you're interested in one protein, such as p53, you can actually pull out all those other people interested in p53, and you can go on to contact them or form discussion groups," Gemeda says.

The Web site also offers a career development section to provide information and advice to help navigate a career in science, E-mail-based discussion groups for graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and directors of minority opportunities in research programs or minority institute research centers, jobs in conjunction with sciencejobs.com, and stories and interviews angled toward minority scientists.

Networking can have applications far beyond career advancement. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, for example, the site offered forums as opportunities for members "to offer lab space for scientists whose labs may have been destroyed, or assistance to students to complete their theses," Dottin says. At least 50 researchers and students in the JustGarciaHill database were located in areas hit by the hurricane.

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Photo: Jason Varney Photography

Do get out of your comfort zone. "Networking often requires going out and risk-taking, looking for new relationships that don't exist in your current circle," says Pam Silas, executive director of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society.

Do stay focused when contacting people. "Be prepared in the area you want to talk about so that people realize you're serious about what you're doing and not wasting their time," advises Mekbib Gemeda, director of the office of diversity affairs at New York University School of Medicine.

Don't be focused only on what you want. "Also focus on how you can benefit others. Take advantage of what you might bring to the table as well," says Iesha O'Deneal, manager of diversity programs at the New York Academy of Sciences.

Do be willing to listen. "Pose questions, but actually hear the answers," Silas says.

Don't feed into stereotypes others may have of you. "There are times and places to be outspoken about your culture and [other times] to be more careful," says Alberto Roca, cochair of the postdoc committee of the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science. "At SACNAS, nobody thinks twice about speaking in Spanish, but if you're networking in an environment where many are notbilingual, they may feel awkward."

Do use your existing network to grow your network. "If you're interested in meeting so-and-so, ask your advisor, 'Do you know them,' and if so, ask if they could send an email to introduce you. A lot of times, if your friend is introducing you to a student, they'll pay more attention," says Alissa Myrick, a board member of Brothers Building Diversity in the Sciences.

Do be patient. "Building a solid network takes time. It doesn't happen overnight," Myrick says.