Expanding support and implementing new teaching strategies to broaden diversity in biomedical research

An RBR Writing Program post by Sophia Kaska

A sustainable biomedical research enterprise must be diverse along any number of axes, including racial, ethnic, gender and socioeconomic lines. The 2011 Expanding Underrepresented Minority Participation: America’s Science and Technology Talent at the Crossroads from the National Academies laid out recommendations to improve diversity and inclusion in American research. However, progress in implementing these recommendations has been slow.

Freeman Hrabowski and Peter Henderson, two of the authors of the 2011 NAS study, recently explored the University of Maryland-Baltimore County as an example of specific implementable actions that could be taken to improve diversity and inclusion. They argue two practices are essential to successfully increasing the pool of underrepresented students pursuing professional degrees. First, support a student’s overall success by expanding financial support of education, access to tutoring and professional development. Second, employing teaching strategies, such as problem-based learning or team-based learning to promote concept retention, that encourage students from all backgrounds to persist in STEM fields.

Implementing new methods and programs does come with challenges. There is a substantial financial component that universities must commit to make these programs successful. Universities would need to reformat curricula and hire faculty and staff well-versed in pedagogies that foster student retention in the sciences. Training such instructors takes time and could present an impediment to diversification. However, for schools that are able to implement such a system, an institution may expect an increase in the number of students entering STEM fields and a decrease in their course failure rate.

Federal agencies have taken some steps to improve diversity and inclusion in the research enterprise. The National Institutes of Health’s Building Infrastructure Leading to Diversity and the National Science Foundation’s Inclusion across the Nation of Communities of Learners of Underrepresented Discoverers in Engineering and Science program are taking steps to address diversity and inclusion issues, but more must be done. Increasing racial diversity within STEM fields is necessary and beneficial for sustaining the biomedical research enterprise. The obstacles to implementing programs that enhance diversity can be overcome with time, strategic planning, commitment and vision. By building a more diverse workforce, the biomedical research enterprise will become more sustainable and “the country will succeed in realizing the economic, security and health goals the American people prize.”

Sophia Kaska is passionate about communicating science with the public through outreach and education and seeks to empower fellow scientists to advocate for sustaining biomedical research. Sophia is currently completing her Ph.D. at Michigan State University in Pharmacology and Toxicology and Environmental Toxicology. Sophia is on Twitter as @sophia_kaska and can be contacted by e-mail: kaskasop@msu.edu.

The RBR Writing Program is intended to help graduate students and postdocs receive policy writing experience. For more information, contact RBR Director Chris Pickett.