Burroughs Wellcome Fund awards additional funding to PAIR-UP network for Black imaging scientists

Recently, the American Society for Cell Biology (ASCB) launched Partnering to Advance Imaging Research for Underrepresented Minority Scientists Program (or PAIR-UP) to specifically help build and support five collaborative research teams of Black imaging scientists. The program started with a grant for more than $1.4 million from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. Now PAIR-UP has received additional funding of $675,000 over three years from the Burroughs Wellcome Fund to include dedicated postdoctoral fellows to guide three of the five research teams, also known as Peer Imaging Clusters (PICs).

George Langford, an ASCB Fellow and Professor of Biology from Syracuse University who founded PAIR-UP in 2020, is the principal investigator for PAIR-UP. ASCB’s Director of Professional Development Ashanti Edwards serves as the co-PI. Langford said he would continue to seek funding for two additional postdocs so that each PIC would have a leader.

“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. The postdocs will be the essential personnel in each PIC that bridges the individual labs, thereby creating a successful team model.”

Through the PICs, Black scientists will develop new research projects utilizing cutting-edge imaging techniques. 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. 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. The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative will sponsor two Imaging workshops for the PAIR-UP program in 2022.

Langford said PAIR-UP addresses 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. He added that 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, Langford explained.

Langford added that there is copious evidence to support these statements. For example, extrapolation of over 20 years of data on 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.

“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.”

“The Burroughs Wellcome Fund recognizes the significant need for not only increasing the number of Black scientists in academia but also creating a culture of success across early-career networks,” said Lou Muglia, President and CEO of the Burroughs Wellcome Fund. “We enthusiastically support the PAIR-UP initiative under the leadership of Dr. George Langford. This effort will substantially enhance the careers of Black imaging scientists and serves as a framework for advancing the careers for underrepresented minority scientists across disciplines.”

Langford thanked the Burroughs Wellcome Fund for its additional funding, adding that “this important support allows PAIR-UP to achieve the goals of building community among Black imaging scientists from different institutions and optimize the exchange of ideas and techniques.”

For further reading, check out this Perspective by Alfred Mays and Louis Muglia, both of the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, and Langford published in FASEB Journal.

Langford and Edwards are recruiting PAIR-UP network members. Individuals interested in more information about PAIR-UP should visit the PAIR-UP website: https://www.ascb.org/pair-up/

ASCB is an inclusive community of biologists studying the cell, the fundamental unit of life. We are dedicated to advancing scientific discovery, advocating sound research policies, improving education, promoting professional development, and increasing diversity in the workforce.

About the Author:

Mary Spiro is ASCB's Strategic Communications Manager.