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Diversity, funding, and grassroots organizing

Pursuing a career in research always seemed like an obvious choice for me. As a 7-year-old, my bedroom was crowded with a motley assortment of insects, frogs, toads, and lizards trying to escape from their glass jam jar prisons while I observed their behavior. But despite my natural inclination for science, my path has been complicated. I was raised in a low-income, single-parent household in India, with no access to mentoring or after-school programs. I also identify as a gay man from a country where lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people are labeled “deviants” and laws that facilitate human rights violations against the LGBT community are still upheld. These elements of my background have all affected how my career has progressed, making me question how we can promote accessibility in science and spurring me to see how I can contribute toward an inclusive environment at my own institution.

When I managed to come to the United States for college on a student visa, I was excited by the opportunity to pursue cutting-edge research and to shape my destiny in a culture where I would not be as marginalized for my sexual orientation. I pursued my version of the American dream—exploring my scientific interests, earning a bachelor’s degree in cell and molecular biology, and working as a research technician—before enrolling in a Ph.D. program, where I hoped to study the genetic underpinnings of psychiatric illnesses. Everything seemed to be working out.

However, shortly after I started grad school, the 2011 U.S. government debt crisis put my career plans into disarray. Suddenly, my principal investigator’s (PI’s) funding was cut and he could no longer support me. To make matters worse, as a non-U.S. citizen I couldn’t be supported by any of the institutional training grants that sponsor many biomedical graduate students. My program did not have any stop-gap mechanisms to help, and other PIs were hesitant to take on a student they would have to fully support for up to 6 years.

As I frantically tried to figure out a solution, I began to run into a lack of cultural proficiency about my situation. I had to repeatedly explain to administrators and PIs that I could not just “take a break” from school until funding was restored because my ability to stay in the country was contingent on being a registered student. I also had to explain that returning to India would be problematic because of the discrimination against LGBT people that is common there. I felt crushed. It was incredibly tough to have made it into a competitive graduate program only to be sideswiped by a problem that neither I nor any of my advisers had foreseen. Realizing that the life I had so painstakingly built in my new home could easily be snatched away from me overwhelmed me with anxiety about my future. I felt very isolated, and questioned whether there was room in scientific research for people like me.

Ultimately, I chose to move to a new lab at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center (Fred Hutch) in Seattle, Washington, and to a new field: HIV research, which is well-funded but an area in which I had no existing expertise. This personal experience propelled me to start investigating the relationship between funding restrictions and the lack of diversity in science. I found that mine was not an isolated incident; it is a national problem. Multiple studies have reported that the lack of diversity in science across a number of categories—including gender, race, ethnicity, nationality, disability status, socioeconomic status, and sexual orientation—is a major problem, and inequitable access to funding is one of the systemic factors underlying the loss of many talented, underrepresented early-career researchers.

After learning about this problem, I started to explore ideas for how we could improve retention of underrepresented scientists at my own institution. I got involved with Hutch United, a grassroots diversity organization founded by a group of graduate students and postdocs in 2013. Discussions with other students from underrepresented backgrounds at my own institution reinforced at a personal level what I had already found in my reading about the issue: Funding uncertainty had discouraged many of them from pursuing careers in science, too. For some, the personal financial uncertainty that can come with an academic science career was a powerful deterrent because they were responsible for supporting members of their extended families. Others were discouraged by reports demonstrating that researchers from underrepresented backgrounds on average have a harder time winning grants to support their research.

It seemed clear to me that a novel funding source for minority researchers could make a huge impact. So, when a postdoc involved in Hutch United, Kiran Dhillon, suggested that we consider establishing a fellowship for incoming Fred Hutch graduate students and postdocs from underrepresented backgrounds, I began leading the committee exploring this possibility.

It took us a year and a half and many hours of meetings, brainstorming, and strategizing, but ultimately Fred Hutch’s president and director, Gary Gilliland, approved institutional support for the Hutch United Fellowships, which fund the salary and expenses for one graduate student and one postdoctoral researcher for 2 years each. The first recipients started receiving support in July, and later this year, we will be fundraising from corporate and private donors to fund the 2017 application cycle and beyond. One of the crucial features of the fellowship is that—in addition to being open to scientists from groups that are traditionally identified as underrepresented, including women, racial minorities, and scientists with disabilities—we are also encouraging applications from frequently overlooked groups, such as scientists from low-income backgrounds and those who identify as LGBT.

Getting the fellowship started wasn’t easy, but it has been very gratifying to see firsthand how grassroots organizing can prompt institutional change. I also learned a tremendous amount. For others who are interested in taking on similar projects, here are some of the lessons I learned that can help lead to success.

Biswajit Paul

Biswajit Paul

Credit: D.Wise/University of Washington

Make a cogent argument. We put together our fellowship proposal the same way that we would write a grant: We defined the problem and explained why diversity is important. We looked at other institutions to see what they are doing. We found data to demonstrate that some groups of underrepresented scientists do not have any means of getting funding. We argued that the fellowship would demonstrate institutional support for diversity and make us a national leader in this area. Doing our homework and presenting a strong, organized case helped propel our ideas into reality.

Find faculty mentors. We did not fully understand how to navigate institutional hierarchies, so we partnered with faculty members who had experience working with Fred Hutch leadership and private philanthropies on similar projects. They helped arrange meetings with those in senior leadership roles who set the institution’s priorities, which allowed us to move our effort forward.

Show your PI that you’re getting your work done. Working to establish a new initiative is a big time commitment, and it’s crucial to remember that your scientific work is your primary responsibility. During meetings with my mentor, I always lead with data and progress reports on my research. When he’s been assured that I am moving forward in my dissertation, I briefly update him about my extracurricular activities.

Be true to your values. Several times in my career I have had to decide whether to speak up or remain silent about problems with diversity and inclusion practices. When I speak out, I am sometimes dismissed, misunderstood, or treated unfairly. But these instances have been balanced by the times that taking a stand or taking action, such as leading the fellowship creation effort, have led to finding an ally, a mentor, or an interesting opportunity. I’m glad that I’ve made my decisions based on my values.

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