NIH support fosters diversity among PhD trainees

Most PhD training programs in the biomedical sciences struggle to achieve a level of diversity that mirrors the racial and ethnic makeup of the U.S. population.

Ultimately, this lack of diversity among today’s graduate students can hinder tomorrow’s scientific progress. That’s because researchers from different backgrounds bring a diversity of ideas to the laboratory to analyze and solve complex problems.

With that in mind, Washington University in St. Louis has received a $1.8 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to foster student diversity in its PhD training program in the biomedical sciences.

The five-year grant is aimed at helping African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans and other groups that have been historically underrepresented in the sciences. It is one of only two new grants awarded in 2013 as part of an NIH program called Initiative to Maximize Student Development program. The other award went to Duke University.

The goal of the program is to recruit more minority students into WUSTL’s PhD training programs in the Division of Biology and Biomedical Sciences (DBBS) and to encourage and support the students so they graduate and go on to successful careers.

“The pace of progress in the biomedical sciences hinges on our ability to recruit and retain the brightest students,” said the grant’s principal investigator, Cherilynn Shadding, PhD, outreach director of The Genome Institute. “Studies have indicated that diversity of thought, perspective and background among individuals working as part of a team enhances performance. To that end, the pursuit of scientific excellence should include students from all backgrounds.”

Each year, the grant will support a few graduate students entering the university’s PhD training program in biology and biomedical sciences. Funding for students will continue through the first two years of their studies, during a time when they generally complete required coursework and prepare for qualifying exams. Passing those exams is a major milestone and allows students to begin working on a thesis.

The new program provides a series of educational initiatives to strengthen the academic success of students and help them master critical skills such as giving oral presentations and writing scientific papers.

Students also will have exposure to various career opportunities in their fields of study and mentors to encourage their professional development. As the program grows, many components of the program will be open to all graduate students in DBBS.

The program also is aimed at fostering a sense of belonging among the students.

“We want all of our graduate students to feel like they are a part of this institution and to be successful,” Shadding said. “And we want students to thrive once they’re here so they have all the tools they need to be leaders in their fields.”

James Skeath, PhD, professor of genetics and chair of the diversity steering committee in DBBS, is co-principal investigator of the grant. John Russell, PhD, associate dean for graduate education in the division, also is working closely with Shadding and the students in the program.

Wendell Jones, a first-year graduate student in molecular genetics and genomics, is especially grateful for the program. “I knew coming to Washington University would be a different ballgame,” said Jones. “The encouragement and support I’ve received is helping me stay ahead of the game.”

Jones, who plans to put his PhD to work in the pharmaceutical or biotech industry, hopes his research one day will provide a more definitive answer to a question that has intrigued scientists for decades: How do changes in the way genes are regulated give rise to diseases?

The student development program is putting him on the path to accomplish just that, he said.

Washington University School of Medicine’s 2,100 employed and volunteer faculty physicians also are the medical staff of Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals. The School of Medicine is one of the leading medical research, teaching and patient care institutions in the nation, currently ranked sixth in the nation by U.S. News & World Report. Through its affiliations with Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals, the School of Medicine is linked to BJC HealthCare.