Talent is universal; opportunity is not.
—Nicholas Kristof, New York Times, March 28, 2012
While Nicholas Kristof was discussing talent and opportunity in regards to geographical location and access to opportunities in various countries, his point rings deeply true in terms of access to opportunities in the STEM fields in the United States, specifically for students from minority groups, first-generation college families, and low socioeconomic backgrounds.
One of the biggest challenges for such students is often a lack of information about careers in science. Not being aware of opportunities or how to harness them can be severely limiting and is a barrier to entry into STEM fields. As a faculty member at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, I have been involved with a few programs that try to achieve change in this area. As part of the Open Houston Program, I have spoken at middle and high schools in underrepresented minority communities about my journey from India to my current position and career in science. The Open Houston Program is designed and executed by the Women and Minority Faculty Inclusion Program at MD Anderson Cancer Center (https://bit.ly/3cy4vw3).
Open Houston Program: Introducing Students to Role Models in Science
The Open Houston Program brings minority and women faculty from the MD Anderson Cancer Center together with elementary, middle, and high school students from underrepresented minority groups. These visits are designed to introduce students to role models in STEM and to open a dialogue about how everyone can belong in STEM fields. Once students become aware of the possibilities and the opportunities, enabling and encouraging them to pursue those opportunities comes next.
After my visits to schools through Open Houston, I often receive emails from teachers of students who are interested in talking to me further about opportunities that may exist at MD Anderson Cancer Center and how to pursue them. I respond to these inquiries in a few different ways: 1) I invite the students to visit the lab for a tour, and we walk them through what we do in lab; 2) I provide information on how to pursue careers in STEM, including the availability of stipends (for the programs where stipends are provided); 3) I direct students to the four to six paid summer internship programs at MD Anderson that provide access to students by matching the student’s experience and interest with host labs where the students work for 8–10 weeks.
In addition to the Open Houston Program, my lab actively participates in the Outreach Program at the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences (GSBS) at MD Anderson Cancer Center / UT Health (https://bit.ly/2Uiei19). The Outreach Program, together with teachers from local high schools, organizes a day-long event for students from various underrepresented communities to visit the graduate school. Labs from around the institution do a show-and-tell on model systems, basic science, and cutting edge technologies and offer short career path talks from faculty, students, and others. The program has been extremely effective because many of the students who visit the institute as part of the Outreach Program apply for our summer high school student programs, allowing them further opportunities to explore specific STEM career paths. Encouragement and celebration of diversity foster a healthy STEM environment.
Finally, as a member of the Graduate Education Committee at the MD Anderson UT Health GSBS, I chair the subcommittee on Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity to help best support at-risk students, faculty, and staff, who are integral to STEM. This is an effort to create a sustainable, inclusive environment that effectively paves the way for the success of minority groups in academic settings. The goal of this effort is to foster a diverse, vibrant, and healthy academic environment.
My lab’s scientific fabric is also deeply enriched by these experiences. I am fortunate enough to have a team of diverse scientists and scientists-in-training who participate in the Outreach Program with me. This by definition requires them to work as a team to be most effective at making an engaging presentation to underrepresented minority students. Working as a team then flows over into their daily interaction in the lab, which ranges from brainstorming on critical experimental ideas to even building tools that may be important for a lab mate’s research. Most wonderfully, it has fostered in them the desire to pay forward what they learn from these experiences. Thus they actively take on leadership roles. For example, two of my graduate students, Amanda Minogue and Jacob Ortega, are respectively the current president of the Graduate School Council at Baylor College of Medicine (BCM) and president of the BCM chapter of the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science. (I am a faculty member in the graduate program in Developmental Biology at BCM.) Another example is student Han Bit Baek, who is active in the Genetics and Epigenetics Graduate Program Community Committee at MD Anderson UT Health Graduate School. The increased engagement with outreach programs and the joy of belonging to the world of science has led to successful careers in STEM fields for many of my lab members. It’s truly a win–win situation!
About the Author:
Swathi Arur is an associate professor in the Department of Genetics, Division of Basic Science Research at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.