A Look at WHY Underrepresented Populations Leave Neuroscience Research

In “Factors that Influence Career Choice Among Different Populations of Neuroscience Trainees,” published recently in eNeuro, NINDS program director Lauren Ullrich, Ph.D., and fellow authors bring to light many issues about why women and individuals from underrepresented populations leave the neuroscience field at rates higher than men and Whites. They are less often first authors of papers, publish in journals with lower impact factors, and less often submit grants through the “special,” more honorific mechanisms NIH has to offer.

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Be Mindful of the Past and UNITE for the Future

For my birthday this past year, my husband bought me a book by Jill Lepore entitled These Truths – a nearly 1,000-page tome that tells the history of the United States, although describing it that way sells this wonderful book vastly short. What These Truths does is tell the complicated, messy, and intertwined stories of the people who collectively enacted and constituted the history of the United States. Like many, I read for pleasure only as I am falling off to sleep at night. This means it will be at least a few more months before I finish the book! But now, more than halfway through it, one thing is horrifyingly clear: slavery, persecution, hate crime, the advantage of assimilation and the deadly disadvantage of being identifiable as “other” have pervaded the history of this country since before its inception through the present day. To be sure, and somewhat reassuringly vis-à-vis the very humanity of the human race, outspoken and courageous opposition of people who viewed this to be wrong began almost as soon as the first enslaved person stepped on our shores. But too often, economics and xenophobia won out.

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Diversification of the Neuroscience Workforce: Not One Size Fits All

In August 2019, NINDS welcomed more than 35 female Prince George’s County Public School STEM students at the Girls Navigating Neuroscience program (click image to learn more)
Image Credit: Chia-Chi Charlie Chang

Given that the word “diverse” means “made up of many different kinds,” it has always seemed odd to me that we think of the process of diversification in one dimension only. Recent studies have suggested that not only the degree but also the nature of diversification within the biomedical workforce differs among race and ethnicity, gender, level of expertise, and programmatic career focus. There can be no single specific recipe for achieving equity and inclusion; it requires, rather, a living, evolving, and creative cookbook!

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We May Have Come So Far, But We Have Yet So Far To Go

The history of medicine, like so much of the history of everything human, is replete with examples of abuses of power (both physical and philosophical)—acts born of ignorance, stolen credit, and false credentials. One has only to recall the surgical methods developed by Dr. Marion Sims, an American physician, as he operated without anesthesia on enslaved Black women and the experiments conducted on the Tuskegee Airmen, Black military pilots who fought in World War II, from whom diagnoses were hidden and treatments were withheld all while considerable data were collected. So-called “studies” of many kinds conducted on specific ethnic, religious, or medically defined groups fill the annals of intra- and international affairs.

Since the Declaration of Helsinki, a statement of ethical principles for medical research involving human subjects adopted in 1964, we have truly come a long way. The ultimate aim and benchmarks of success were changes in international culture, the collective definition of common human decency, and proper conduct in regard to research on human subjects. You will note, however, that the practical road to that ideal began with regulations and policy; grassroots and committee-led enforcement of practice and reporting; and institutional and governmental oversight and enforcement of consequences for deficient practices.

But changing culture takes much longer. And rebuilding trust and establishing the kind of comfort level that allows people to speak out about important issues and to participate in a clinical trial or a research study takes even longer and requires human interaction on a personal level.

So, what has NINDS done to try to move the needle? How is NINDS making clear to people of color, and specifically Black people, that not only do their lives matter to us, their health, well-being, and voices as part of our NINDS family matter as well? Dr. Koroshetz, the NINDS director, has also published his thoughts in a new Director’s Message.

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