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The American Society for Microbiology (ASM) is pleased to respond to the issue of how the National Institutes of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) can more effectively promote and encourage greater diversity in the biomedical research workforce. The ASM has several committees addressing this topic, which is also part of ASM’s strategic plan. Strategies to promote diversity in the biomedical research workforce could serve to reduce and ultimately eliminate health disparities in our nation and also increase our country’s talent pool. The ASM is the largest educational, professional, and scientific society dedicated to the advancement of the microbiological sciences and their application for the common good. The Society represents more than 42,000 microbiologists, including scientists and science administrators working in a variety of areas, including biomedical, environmental, and clinical microbiology.
Although numerous research and career training programs exist to increase diversity at the undergraduate level and beyond, they are limited for K-12 students. Stimulating interest in students at an early age, who are often affected by health disparities in rural and urban areas, could serve to heighten student awareness and preparation for both clinical and basic research careers. Educational programs that provide emphasis on health issues affecting these communities, such as infectious diseases and cardiovascular and pulmonary conditions, would educate students on the role they could play in combating these diseases. Students that have an interest in research-oriented careers could have a more customized curriculum designed for better preparedness in math and science courses. Additionally, these programs could be offered in partnership with local health agencies, health centers, community colleges, and universities where diversity in the workforce can be observed.
Undergraduate programs that provide diverse students an opportunity to pursue research-oriented careers are applauded. However, retention of students that matriculate into doctoral or other graduate programs is a growing problem. Majority institutions should focus on establishing and maintaining offices of recruitment and retention for diverse students. These offices could serve to train faculty and program directors through diversity and culture awareness courses to alleviate the stereotyping of diverse students as well as the perception that these students are “at risk”. These offices could also serve to collaborate with graduate programs for students who encounter problems to develop a more tailored plan of action. A funded, pre-graduate summer educational program would assist in the assimilation process for these students, and allow time for students accepted into a graduate program to develop better study skills and gain additional laboratory experience. Also key to the retention of students is effective mentorship programs to include not only models at the research institution but also models that are inclusive of former students that are in successful biomedical research career positions. This would allow for increased exposure to nontraditional or alternative biomedical research careers that may serve to retain student’s interest in the biomedical sciences.
Finally, NIGMS should consider supporting individuals who choose clinical research careers (absent the combined MD/PhD path) because there is a dearth of incoming clinical researchers and it should initiate a dialogue that would decrease the lengthy training process which is a barrier to many who would otherwise choose this field. Thank you for the opportunity to comment on the NIGMS Strategic Planning Process.