ASCB receives grant to foster collaborative network of Black imaging scientists

The American Society for Cell Biology (ASCB) has received a grant for more than $1.4 million from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation to implement a new inclusivity model and develop a more diverse scientific workforce. The grant title—Partnering to Advance Imaging Research for Underrepresented Minority Scientists Program (or PAIR-UP)—will specifically help to build and support collaborative research teams of Black imaging scientists. George Langford, an ASCB Fellow and Professor of Biology from Syracuse University who founded PAIR-UP in 2020, will be principal investigator for PAIR-UP. Ashanti Edwards, ASCB’s Director of Professional Development, will serve as the co-PI.

Langford said the program will address a major roadblock to success faced by many early career Black scientists–that is, of being the only Black faculty member in their entire department or school. Langford said the need for PAIR-UP is “urgent” to support the careers of highly trained postdoctoral fellows (who receive prestigious fellowships such as the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Hanna Gray and Burroughs Wellcome Fund Postdoctoral Diversity Enrichment Program (PDEP) fellowships) who are being hired now into faculty positions at major research universities.

In many cases, these early career Black researchers are likely to be the only Black scientist in their department, and being “the only one” is culturally isolating for these early career Black faculty members and puts undue emotional and psychological pressure on them as they navigate spaces in historically white colleges and universities (HWCUs), Langford explained.

Langford added that there is copious evidence to support these statements. For example, extrapolation of over 20 years of data of current hiring trends suggests that it will take centuries for underrepresented racial/ethnic groups to reach parity among medical school faculty (U.S. Medical School Faculty Trends: Percentages). Likewise, Shirley Tilghman et al. wrote in an April 2021 Science article, Concrete steps to diversify the scientific workforce, that it has been proven that a more inclusive scientific workforce improves the quality of scientific knowledge created.

Langford said his own career experience inspired the creation of PAIR-UP.

“Over my career, I have worked at several research-intensive, historically white institutions, and I was the only one, the only African American faculty member, in my department,” Langford said. “This is the lived experience that I share with most Black scientists in universities today. In the summer of 2020, I founded PAIR-UP at Syracuse University for Black imaging scientists who hold postdoctoral and tenure-track faculty appointments at R1 universities. The program creates a self-reinforcing community (collaborative research teams) of Black scientists who are committed to helping each other sustain a strong cultural identity and sense of agency. PAIR-UP has the potential to be transformational for Black scientists who face cultural isolation at their home institutions.”

This newly funded PAIR-UP will foster collaborations among Black imaging scientists at different R1 institutions who will value and respect one another, as well as facilitate access for these scientists to the most powerful imaging tools available, Langford explained. “PAIR-UP will use ‘strength-building’ activities and not one of remediation,” Langford added. “It will become a community that reinforces cultural identity and inspires one another.”

PAIR-UP will create Peer Imaging Clusters (PICs) of collaborating Black scientists who will develop new research projects utilizing cutting-edge imaging techniques. The PICs are a unique framework to bring scientists together with the goal of generating novel, high-risk basic science research ideas, catalyzing new collaborations among researchers who have not previously collaborated, and strengthening networks of early career scientists. PAIR-UP held its first three-day virtual workshop in November 2020 on image processing and analysis.

Langford says he sees the PAIR-UP PICs as opportunities for scientists to increase productivity, innovation, and advancement as well as improve and enhance the quality of their work-life balance and satisfaction in their laboratories, and to reduce overall stress. He expects that these clusters will result in greater retention of faculty and greater scientific contributions that had previously not be realized due to cultural isolation.

“Collective knowledge will be shared, the strength of the community will grow, and everyone will develop a sense of belonging, strong science identity, strong science efficacy, enhanced research innovation/productivity, a sense of inclusion, cultural identity, a sense of agency, effective engagement in social justice activism, and the ultimate feeling of success,” he said.

PAIR-UP will build community using three foundational pillars to guide its cohesion: strong cultural identity, a strong sense of agency, and advocacy for institutional culture change, Langford explained.

“These three foundational pillars will unleash creativity, productivity, and innovation and serve to counter the tendency of Blacks at HWCUs to be shoehorned into an institutional model designed for whites,” he said. “These activities will draw upon the whole, authentic self, including one’s cultural background and history, to access latent ideas and energy that are routinely blocked due to the need for self-silencing and cultural smothering (code-switching) when working in historically white spaces.”

The funding for PAIR-UP spans 50 months, and Langford and Edwards are already recruiting new network members. Individuals interested in more information about PAIR-UP should contact Langford (glangfor@syr.edu) and Edwards (aedwards@ascb.org). A website is in development and will be available soon.

“I can’t thank the Moore Foundation enough for its generous support of PAIR-UP,” Langford said. “The Moore Foundation, upon examining the data, quickly recognized that the problem of cultural isolation of Black scientists at HWCUs is a major problem that needs to be addressed. PAIR-UP will be transformational for Black scientists, and the scientific community is indebted to the Moore Foundation for creating this unique opportunity.”

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Mary Spiro is ASCB's Science Writer and Social Media Manager.