By Griffin P. Rodgers, M.D., M.A.C.P.
Director, National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases
Recently, we received a thank you note from a student who participated in a National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) program that provides research training to high school and college students from underrepresented groups. A year ago, the student wrote, she had no idea what scientists did, and now she teaches laboratory procedures to other students. She was also selected to present her work at the 2019 American Society for Nephrology’s Kidney Week.
This aspiring scientist, a first-generation college student, took part in NIDDK’s Short-Term Research Experience for Underrepresented Persons (STEP-UP), and stories like hers support our Institute’s efforts to build a strong pipeline of talented, diverse biomedical researchers.
Talent is universal, but opportunity is not. It’s a gap I believe we have a responsibility to bridge. Our programs stem from a firm understanding: diversity strengthens science. Increasing diversity in the scientific workforce will enable us to better tackle the diseases in NIDDK’s mission areas, many of which disproportionately affect minority and underrepresented populations. As discussed in a 2016 PLOS Medicine article on improving health equity, scientists from diverse backgrounds can offer innovative perspectives to facilitate problem-solving, as well as encourage people from their own communities to participate in research studies.
STEP-UP is one of several NIDDK programs aimed to nurture future generations of scientists from diverse backgrounds. The NIDDK Diversity Summer Research Training Program, for example, gives college students from underrepresented groups the opportunity to conduct research in NIDDK labs, and the Medical Student Research Program in Diabetes enables students to conduct research at an NIDDK-funded diabetes center, with special efforts made to recruit female and minority students.
NIDDK also funds Aspirnaut™ Summer Research Internships, which bring high school and undergraduate students from rural and disadvantaged backgrounds to Vanderbilt University Medical Center for mentored laboratory training.
I recently read about a graduate of the program—an African-American man—from one of the poorest areas of Arkansas, where science may not feel like an obtainable career path. After completing his bachelor’s degree in biology, he went on to obtain a master’s degree and now teaches science to middle schoolers.
I cannot speak enough about the importance of this man’s work—of the need to expose young minds to the world of science and give them opportunities to enter STEM fields. I’m a product of it myself. My father was a high school science teacher, and my mother was a public health nurse. They both instilled in me a love of science that grew into a lifelong passion.
One of our newer programs, the NIDDK Elementary School Tour, brings local students from low-income areas to the NIH to interact with NIDDK staff, tour our labs, and experience the excitement of scientific discovery. And through the USA Science and Engineering Festival’s Nifty Fifty program, I visit schools to speak to young students about science.
While we foster the growth of our future scientists, we also support minority health researchers throughout their careers. NIDDK offers several funding opportunities to promote diversity in health-related research. Our Network of Minority Health Research Investigators (NMRI) encourages minority scientists to conduct research within NIDDK’s mission areas. The NMRI facilitates career development in many ways, including connecting junior investigators with senior mentors and providing pathways for networking and collaboration, such as through the NMRI annual meeting.
As proud as I am of NIDDK’s strides to cultivate a diverse research pipeline, I know we still have work to do. By giving opportunity to talent through our training and outreach programs, as well as the research we conduct and support, NIDDK is working persistently to achieve greater health equity, with the goal of helping all people live healthier, longer lives.