Like most institutions, the US National Institutes of Health struggles with issues of diversity and inclusion. The NIH employs more than 1,000 scientists in its in-house research program. Of those, just 24% of senior investigators were women and merely 5% were black, Hispanic, American Indian, or Native Alaskan in 2018. That same year, more than half of US biomedical PhD graduates were women and around 12% were underrepresented minorities.
“Even though we have increased significantly the representation of groups that are receiving PhDs, it is not translating into them being hired,” says Hannah Valantine, the NIH’s chief officer for scientific workforce diversity. “We have got to do something in that transition from training into academic positions.”
That’s why NIH leaders have started a program to help more minority scientists land tenure-track positions at the NIH and to keep them once they get there. The NIH Distinguished Scholars Program (DSP) brings together scientists from across NIH institutes and provides them with both financial support and intense mentoring. The first group of 13 scholars was named in the fall of 2018.
Increasing the diversity of the NIH Intramural Research Program is important because studies show that increased diversity means more innovation and a broader array of ideas, says Louise McCullough, a neurologist and researcher at Memorial Hermann–Texas Medical Center who is on the intramural program’s outside advisory committee. That opportunity for better science is why she’s excited about the DSP. “Diverse groups do better than nondiverse groups,” she says.
Former NIH postdoc Luigi Alvarado saw the lack of diversity when he was at the agency. As vice president of the NIH chapter of the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS), he advocated for change and pushed for more inclusion.
“It is fantastic that they are trying to open up the NIH to the world and say, ‘Hey, we worry about diversity,’ ” says Alvarado, who is now an R&D scientist at the biotech company 10x Genomics.
Over the years, the NIH has made some improvements in recruiting a more diverse array of scientists, Valantine says, but those efforts were not translating into changes among its tenured investigator ranks. Without stronger action, she estimates it will take 50 years to reach parity with the US population. That’s why the DSP is taking a different tack.
In addition to providing each scholar with up to $2.35 million in funding over 4 years, the DSP recruits the scientists as a cohort so they can support each other and learn together. In a place as big as the NIH, some of these scientists might never have run into one another without this program. “Junior faculty often report this sense of isolation, this sense of not belonging,” Valantine says.
What also makes the program different is its intense focus on mentoring. Starting with a 2-day class called “How to Succeed as a PI at the NIH,” the program then pairs small groups of three or four scholars with a senior investigator who meets with them regularly to guide them through the transition into tenured positions. “It is not only how to do their science but other things: how to lead, how to manage their lab,” Valantine says.
The DSP awardees also had to demonstrate their commitment to be good mentors to scientists in their own labs. Choosing scholars who value mentoring is especially vital to supporting the next generation of young, diverse scientists, Alvarado says. “It’s important to have mentors who can relate to their mentees and who share the passion for bringing people in from different parts of the world.”
What the NIH learns through the program can help universities and research centers recruit and keep a more diverse workforce as well, McCullough says. “We can learn best practices that I can bring back to my institution. We all struggle with diversity.”
Read on to learn about the three DSP researchers trained as chemical scientists.
National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases
Eric Calvo’s chemistry career started at the bench—washing glassware. And he’s still grateful to the lab managers at the University of Havana soil chemistry lab who taught him that lab work “is not just doing research. It’s keeping the lab organized.” To this day, “my lab is spotless,” he says.
That same lab is where Calvo learned the basics of protein chemistry research as a biochemistry undergraduate. After getting his bachelor’s degree, the Cuban government assigned him a job at the country’s Institute of Tropical Medicine, which led him to the research path he is still on today: studying mosquito-borne diseases. He found the topic so interesting he applied for a World Health Organization fellowship to pay for graduate school at the University of São Paulo in Brazil, where he studied the chemistry of mosquito salivary glands.
That was also where he first learned the value of diversity in the lab. His adviser there actively recruited students from across Brazil, even if they weren’t from the top universities. “Don’t look into the pedigree alone; look into what the person can bring to the lab,” Calvo remembers learning.
After his PhD, Calvo worked at the University of California, Irvine, as a research assistant before coming to the NIH as a postdoc. Calvo then worked briefly at the US Food and Drug Administration as a regulatory scientist. But when he got an offer to return to the NIH as a staff scientist, he jumped at the chance to get back into infectious disease research.
At the NIH, Calvo’s principal investigator (PI) offered him a lot of independence to pursue his own ideas and lead his own mini-group. After half a dozen years as a staff scientist, Calvo successfully landed a tenure-track PI position. “I went from being in the party to actually throwing the party,” Calvo says. “Now I feel like I have to provide and make sure that everything goes well.”
His new lab is studying mosquito salivary gland proteins—most of which have no homologs in any database—to find out how they affect pathogen transmission, feeding behavior, allergic reactions in people, and other outcomes. Calvo’s work has expanded beyond malaria to other mosquito-borne diseases, and his tool kit has expanded as well to use techniques such as CRISPR-Cas9.
Calvo has taken the same approach to diversity as his former graduate adviser, filling his lab with students and postdocs from areas where the diseases he studies are endemic, such as Brazil, Mexico, and Spain. The scientists’ backgrounds allow them to contribute unique samples and insect vectors that are plaguing their home countries. Many want to return home to help address the diseases they’re studying. Calvo hopes to “provide them with as many tools” as he can.
The DSP has also introduced Calvo to a different kind of diversity, exposing him to scientists from many research backgrounds and divisions across the NIH, he says. The mentoring program has been particularly helpful because it has forced him to think beyond his research to topics like lab space or support from his division. “It’s not only the scientific part, but the personal life and the administrative piece and how to navigate NIH,” he says.
Percentage of tenured senior investigators who are women
Percentage of tenured senior investigators who are black, Hispanic, or American Indian/Native Alaskan
Average time to tenure for basic scientists, 1997–2008
Percentage of tenure-track investigators who are women
Percentage of tenure-track investigators who are black, Hispanic, or American Indian/Alaska Native
Average time to tenure for women basic scientists, 1997–2008
National Eye Institute
In high school, Catherine Cukras liked math, but she wasn’t sure what to do with that interest. When she arrived at Princeton University as an undergrad, she decided to major in chemical engineering, which she knew had a deep connection to math.
But as she worked her way through the program, Cukras didn’t find the idea of designing chemical reactors very fulfilling; she wanted to find a way to use her science to help people more directly. So she started exploring other options. That is when she first learned about MD-PhD programs.
“That was a real pivotal moment when I intentionally shifted from not really knowing exactly what I was going to do, to a field where I’d be able to combine what I liked about math and science with an application that I thought was going to be important and fulfilling,” she says.
Cukras went to Washington University in St. Louis, where she focused on cell biology research for her PhD while she went to medical school. She settled on ophthalmology as her medical specialty because “the ideas and questions and kind of people did resonate,” she says.
After a residency at the University of Pennsylvania, Cukras decided to focus her research on designing clinical studies to help understand the retina and its related diseases. She was especially interested in translational medicine but found that few institutions do that well. A fellowship at the NIH had the right balance between medicine and research, she says. She stayed on as a clinical scientist.
Cukras is just starting up her independent lab under the DSP. She plans to continue her work on retinal disease. “We’re trying to both image the retina in different ways and also try to assess the function of the retina in different states so that we can have better insight into how [retinal] disease moves,” she says about her research. Clinical studies like hers are especially important because there aren’t good animal models for retinal diseases, she explains. “A lot of the actual progress really has to be made in human studies.”
Cukras says her chemical engineering training helped her develop a more math-focused way of designing clinical studies and gathering data. It contributed to her “willingness to think of more quantitative analyses and approaches that could be applied to biologic questions,” she says.
Cukras has spent years thinking about her science, but what she has found most valuable about the DSP program is that it pushes her to think beyond the lab to her career path. “I haven’t really thought more broadly about who else is out there that I might even emulate or learn from,” she says. “This has been an intentional way of doing that.”
National Cancer Institute
Freddy Escorcia hated chemistry in high school, and this feeling only grew after he found out his chemistry teacher had denigrated his intelligence behind his back. But after fighting his parents’ desire for him to be a doctor for years, Escorcia decided—somewhat reluctantly—to follow in his parents’ footsteps as physicians. That meant he had to take chemistry in college.
So it was a shock when Escorcia got far and away the best grade of his class on the final exam in his second semester of organic chemistry at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His first semester he had earned a B and felt OK with that.
He credits his second-semester professor with being especially engaging. She explained that “we think this is how it works, but we don’t know and this is what we’re studying in the lab,” Escorcia remembers. “The pursuit of an unknown was totally absent when I was in high school. That was what kind of turned me on to science in general and chemistry in particular.”
At the time of that epiphany, Escorcia had already applied to do research, and he ended up in an entomology lab rather than working on chemistry. The next two summers he did research on noncoding RNA at the NIH through a program for underrepresented minority students.
Growing up, Escorcia, who is multiracial, didn’t recognize how important it was to have mentors that look like you because he grew up seeing his Nicaraguan immigrant parents in professional jobs. But his internships with fellow minority students helped him realize how lucky he was to have those role models. “If you don’t see it as a possibility, then it might as well not exist,” he says.
After majoring in chemistry and bioengineering as an undergrad, Escorcia entered a joint MD-PhD program at three institutions—Weill Cornell Medical College, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, and the Rockefeller University—doing research with a medical oncologist to design tumor-targeting molecules. He added radiation oncology to his repertoire to see in real time whether the molecules he designed shrank tumors.
After completing his graduate program, Escorcia came to the NIH as an assistant clinical investigator before becoming a part of the DSP last year. His lab is designing imaging techniques that can help determine whether liver cancer treatments are actually killing tumor cells.
The money from the DSP will allow Escorcia to push his research forward faster than he might have otherwise, he believes. He has also appreciated the mentoring, which has helped guide him through setting up his lab and developing other skills needed to be successful at the NIH.
Escorcia especially values mentoring. Medical residency and fellowships helped prepare him to be a leader because he was forced to make quick decisions and explain them to his colleagues, his patients, and his patients’ families, he says. Now he enjoys guiding his lab members through their projects, allowing them to make mistakes and work through fixing them on their own. “Being able to meet people where they are to help bring them where you want them to go really matters,” he says.