Category: Health Magazine, Summer 2023

Title:Diversifying the neuroscience workforce

Ashley VanMeter, Ph.D
Neurology Professor and IPN Director Ashley VanMeter, Ph.D., is also director of Georgetown’s Center for Functional and Molecular Imaging.

Women, trans and nonbinary persons, members of racial and ethnic minority groups, people with disabilities, and people from disadvantaged economic backgrounds are often disenfranchised from scientific research and also face disparities in health outcomes. Further, scientific trainees in these populations might not have the same opportunities for academic or professional growth as their peers.

That is why the Interdisciplinary Program in Neuroscience (IPN) prioritizes promoting diversity and inclusion in the neurosciences, and has steadily increased its recruitment and enrollment of people who are historically underrepresented in the sciences. As a transgender woman, Ashley VanMeter places great emphasis on fostering inclusivity.

“Creating more opportunities for women and underrepresented minorities to succeed in the neurosciences has been an important priority of the program since the beginning,” VanMeter says.

The IPN has a higher number of students who are women than the national average. Since 2011, 73% of the total student population in the IPN have been women.

The program has also steadily increased recruitment of applicants from underrepresented minority groups. In the past 15 years, 27% of all students enrolled were from underrepresented groups, including racial and ethnic minority groups and those from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. Of those currently enrolled, 29% are from underrepresented groups. These outcomes compare favorably with the average for neuroscience doctoral programs, reported most recently as 18%.

The NIH identifies those who have been shown to be underrepresented in health-related sciences and biomedical research on a national basis as Black people; Hispanics or Latino people; American Indians or Alaska Natives; Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders; women; people with disabilities; and people from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.

Of the 12 students that matriculated in 2022, half are from underrepresented groups.

A new NIH training grant at Georgetown, the Initiative for Maximizing Student Development (IMSD) fellowship, offers students from underrepresented groups the opportunity to pursue careers in the biomedical sciences by providing financial support, mentorship, coaching, and professional development. Launched in 2022, IMSD supports seven Ph.D. programs at Georgetown, including the IPN. One of the five students from the first IMSD cohort is an IPN student.

Much like the IPN, the IMSD training program is highly interdisciplinary, drawing on some 60 faculty members from across seven graduate programs and departments to prepare students for careers in the biomedical scientific workforce.

Caleb McKinney, a principal investigator on the IMSD grant along with Maguire Zeiss and Ronda Rolfes, professor in the department of biology, underscores the importance of an interdisciplinary approach to scientific training.

“The scientists we train have to be nimble in how they navigate disciplines,” says McKinney, an associate professor of rehabilitation medicine and interim assistant vice president of the master’s degree in Program Administration and Development at Georgetown University Medical Center. “And they need to be able to contextualize what they’re learning in the classroom and in the lab to have a broad-based impact in whatever their chosen career might be.”

With their shared focus on interdisciplinarity and diversity and inclusion, McKinney says the IPN and IMSD exemplify the George- town ethos of cura personalis—care of the whole person. He says both the doctoral program and the training grant emphasize a holistic approach to  scientific training that recognizes and nurtures students for all that they bring, including their background, diverse interests, passions, and vulnerability.

“It’s really important that we are creating an academic environment where students feel they can be themselves, and see themselves as part of a broader community,” McKinney says. “This is how we will strengthen the pipeline of diversity in the biomedical workforce. And it’s how our graduates will then reach a hand to help others along their own path.”

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