Our People: David Burgess and Renato Aguilera Named as PIs in Sweeping NIH Workforce Diversity Initiative

Two longtime ASCB members and longtime advocates for bringing underrepresented minorities into bioscience have been named as PIs in grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) under its wide-ranging “Enhancing the Diversity of the NIH-Funded Workforce” program.

David Burgess of Boston College will be the lead PI on a five-year $19 million grant to build a National Research Mentoring Network (NRMN) while Renato Aguilera of the University of Texas, El Paso (UTEP) is one of six PIs on a five-year $22.6 million grant aimed at a consortium of 19 research and feeder institutions in the Southwest called BUILDing SCHOLARS (or more completely, Building Infrastructure Leading to Diversity: Southwest Consortium of Health Oriented Education Leaders and Research Scholars).

david burgess

David Burgess of Boston College.
Photo: BC News & Public Affairs

From Boston College, Burgess will lead a team of PIs at four other schools—University of Wisconsin, Madison, University of Minnesota, Morehouse School of Medicine, and the University of North Texas Health Sciences Center—to spread the word about the proven efficacy of targeted and ongoing mentoring to guide students from underrepresented minorities (URMs) to successful careers in the biomedical disciplines. Burgess says NRMN will build on solid evidence from previous URM student mentoring programs that such efforts can have dramatic effects for individuals and yet nationally the proportion of URM professionals in biomedicine has not significantly improved. Moreover, recent studies have revealed that URM professionals face career-long obstacles in funding, hiring, and promotion. A 2011 NIH analysis of research funding success found that Asian scientists were 5.4% less likely and black scientists 13.2% less likely to receive NIH funding than Euro-Americans with equivalent credentials and positions. One answer, Burgess believes, is a national clearinghouse and outreach center for “best practices” in mentoring in support of a comprehensive effort to plug the “breaks” in the career pipeline where talented URM scientists leak out of the system.

In Texas, Aguilera’s UTEP campus will be the hub for efforts to build such a tight educational pipeline through a network of 19 institutions in the Southwest. The BUILD plan is to identify URM students with science talent in high school or junior colleges, encourage their scientific self-identity, prepare them academically for higher level study, and recruit the best for a UTEP tuition-free degree program featuring a highly collaborative, hands-on, technology-rich curriculum with strong mentoring support. BUILD will also coach UTEP faculty, graduate students, and postdocs on how to become more effective instructors and mentors in classrooms and labs, extending this advice to faculty partners at the pipeline schools.

The ASCB has been a partner in the development of the NRMN proposal from the outset and will play a key role in helping identify mentors and mentees to participate in the Network training activities. Aguilera is currently the co-chair of ASCB’s Minorities Affairs Committee (MAC). Burgess is on MAC and served as PI of the NIH MARC (Minority Access to Research Careers) grant that has supported its activities. Members of scientific societies are partners that Burgess specifically wants to draw into the mentoring network. “This proposal process developed as an inclusive partnership and it will remain so during implementation,” Burgess says. “The ultimate success of NRMN depends on us all working together toward our common goals of a more diverse biomedical workforce.”

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