Paying undergraduate researchers would increase research diversity

The immediate motivation for writing this blog post on behalf of the ASCB LGBTQ+ committee was to publicize some upcoming June deadlines for some LGBTQ+ targeted fellowships in STEM.” These include two that can be sought by graduate students: The “Out To Innovate Scholarships for LGBTQ STEM” offered by NOGLSTP (deadline 6/6/21), and the “Traub-Dicker Rainbow Scholarship” (deadline 6/24/21). But, as I scanned through this list of mostly undergraduate-targeted and school/region specific opportunities, I started thinking about our most junior trainees and the role that paid research support might play in fostering diversity.

I think it is well established that diversity in research is good for the research itself (1,2), and that there can be many barriers that prevent easy access to a science career. Although there are some high school research internship opportunities, most people will have their first taste of research in an undergraduate research experience. With the encouragement of things like the National Science Foundation “Vision and Change” report with AAAS  and program, more and more courses are giving all our undergraduates some understanding of the research process, and no doubt this will entice some of them into the fray. But, it is typically when an undergraduate student joins a PI-led group of researchers to learn “on-the-job” that the real training begins. Because this apprenticeship mechanism requires joining a relatively intimate group of people (i.e., a lab) there is a social effort required to enter a research group, and for underrepresented minorities of all stripes the fear of potential discrimination can be an additional and significant disincentive. For LGBTQ+ researchers, there may be the additional burden of being closeted, which constrains authenticity and further restricts engagement. Inclusivity training for lab personnel, coupled with values signaling like lab website Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion statements or “Safer Space” stickers, while not perfect remedies, work to try and ameliorate such worries.

Then there is the additional barrier of time. The first lesson of research is it is slow: Much slower than the CSI generation has been led to believe. If our potential young recruits are financially strapped, and must spend much of their out-of-class time working, they cannot invest enough time in the lab that is required to gain the necessary experience. Paying students to do research exchanges outside work hours for lab time is therefore an underused weapon in the fight for equity in research.

That poverty is a factor in DEI issues is not in doubt: For example, a recent report released in 2019 by the Williams Institute at UCLA documents distressing elevations in poverty among the nation’s LGBTQ+ population, which has an overall poverty rate of 21.6% (26% in rural areas) compared with 15.7% of cisgender straight people. Within this average, the rates for bisexual cisgender women and transgender folk soars to just under 30%, while any transgender person has a sobering 70% greater chance of finding themselves impoverished than a cis-straight man. When considering the intersection between the LGBTQ+ population and race, the overall poverty rate for Black LGBTQ+ people was found to be almost 31%, above even the (all-too-high) rate of 25% for Black cisgender straight people. For those who are lucky enough to get into college, many will be working their way through to pay off loans and for living expenses. This represents lost talent if we cannot offer time to those who wish to try their hand at research.

Of course, many research opportunities are already funded with a stipend, particularly during the summer months (REU, SROP, SURF…pick your acronym), but these are limited in number in the grand scheme of things. Moreover, in my experience here at Penn State, nearly all of our undergraduate researchers do research for credit hours and a grade. Worst of all is the mythology surrounding the need to volunteer to wash dishes for an entrée into a lab–something I personally have never believed in: I have always paid my dishwashers as a job wholly separate from research participation.

In reality, not everyone will need or be able to pay all their undergraduate researchers: In non-PhD-granting colleges where course-based involvement in research may be much deeper, this mechanism may not apply. Also, to pay for 3-8 undergraduate trainees (as I have typically maintained) for up to 6 or 7 semesters each alongside your grad students and postdocs mounts up. For some this is not a problem, but for others it is expensive. Federal work-study programs can be used to help with this, reducing the hourly cost to a grant to cents on a dollar, and selectively paying individual undergraduate researchers who reveal that they are limiting their hours in the lab due to work requirements is always an option. But I think in the latter two scenarios, these are not well known as a route into research, and any person who looks at the time commitment to enter research is far more likely to just work and not do research at all. If it was known policy that one would be paid to be a research intern during regular semesters, it would open up the research world to a much more diverse group of people.

Fellowships and prizes have their place in this too, so spread the word.

 

Biblography

  1. PNAS117 (2020) 9284
  2. Nature 559 (2018) 27

 

About the Author:


Claire Thomas is an Associate Professor of Biology and of Biochemistry & Molecular Biology at The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA. She and her lab are interested in the role of the cortical F-actin cytoskeleton in apicobasal polarity, protein trafficking, growth, and morphogenesis, working mainly in Drosophila. Email: clairet@psu.edu