The principal investigators (PIs) for the National Research Mentoring Network, from left: J. K. Vishwanatha, Rafael Luna, Elizabeth Ofili, Christine Pfund, Keith Norris (PI for the Coordination and Evaluation Center), and Kola Okuyemi.

Jeffrey Mervis

NIH-funded network struggles to use mentoring to foster diversity

Rachel Ezieme expected to become a physician when she entered the University of Massachusetts in Boston in 2011. But by her junior year she had dropped plans to go to medical school and was looking for a way to meld her interests in biology, public health, and community activism. That’s when one of her professors suggested she check out the National Research Mentoring Network (NRMN). “I’d always been interested in science, but I wasn’t sure what that might lead to,” Ezieme says.

NRMN is part of an unprecedented, $250 million diversity initiative launched in October 2014 by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland. The effort is designed to increased participation in biomedical research from groups historically underrepresented in the field, including blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans. Fueled by a 5-year, $22 million grant, NRMN offers evidence-based, culturally aware mentoring to the entire scientific community, from undergraduates to senior faculty members, as well as training in grantsmanship and other areas of professional development. To Ezieme, the daughter of Nigerian immigrants, signing up for NRMN’s virtual mentoring site in the fall of 2015 seemed like a good first step in sorting out her career options.

And she was right. “My mentor introduced me to her colleagues in public health, and that was really helpful,” Ezieme says about Karen Winkfield, a radiation oncologist then at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, who works on reducing health disparities in minority communities. “She also kept me focused, asking me questions and pushing me on what I really wanted to do.”

But even the best mentoring doesn’t guarantee that a student will remain in science. After graduating in 2016 with a degree in biology and taking a year off to work and travel, Ezieme has now decided to attend law school. “I looked at Ph.D. programs, but I think I can have more impact on public health and social justices with a law degree,” she says. “And politics runs in the family.”

The meaning of success

Ezieme’s new career path hasn’t stopped NRMN from touting her “success” in a promotional video on its website. And she’s not the only surprising choice. In a recent presentation to a high-level advisory panel, NIH officials included Crystal Lee, a postdoctoral student at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), as an example of NRMN’s impact. But Lee, a member of the Navajo tribe and the first Native American in UCLA’s department of neuroscience and psychiatry, was actually thwarted last year when she tried to sign up for an NRMN workshop on grant writing.

“I applied online, and a couple of weeks later I got an email saying that the application process had been postponed,” she recalls. “Then they moved the training to another location, and somewhere along the line I lost track of things and missed the new deadline. But they said I could try again next year.”

My Story: Rachel Ezieme from NRMN on Vimeo.

Labeling Lee and Ezieme as NRMN success stories may simply be a well-meaning, but flawed bit of public relations. But their experiences point to a more complicated reality. By its own account, NRMN has traveled a rocky road over the past 3 years, a victim of both its own missteps and of obstacles that NIH has thrown in its path. And its path forward is also uncertain. This fall, NIH is expected to issue guidance for the second 5-year phase of the diversity initiative, and there is no guarantee that NRMN will prevail if there’s an open competition.

NRMN scientists think that another round of NIH funding is essential to sustain their progress. But that decision rests with NIH. The stakes are high for anyone who is rooting for a more diverse and inclusive biomedical research community.

Time-tested—and flawed

NRMN aims to strengthen a centuries-old training model in which would-be academic scientists learn the profession under the guidance of their elders. Good mentors paved the way for their students and basked in their success.

That apprenticeship model has worked brilliantly in producing generations of talented scientists. But it also has significant flaws. Mentoring doesn’t come naturally to some professors, nor do their institutions necessarily reward good mentoring when it comes to hiring, tenure, and professional advancement. Most universities don’t even track the extent and quality of mentoring on campus, much less devote resources to those who need help. Historically, the model has also helped preserve biomedicine’s demographic status quo—that is, a preponderance of white male scientists—and hindered entry into the profession by those outside the scientific mainstream.

NRMN was created to address those problems, especially the last. It’s a dramatic investment by NIH in the power of mentoring to change the face of the biomedical workforce. It’s also a key element in the agency’s response to a 2011 study that found black scientists have significantly less success winning NIH grants than their white counterparts.

NRMN is part of what NIH calls its Diversity Program Consortium. The bulk of NIH’s investment in the consortium is going to 10 campus-based efforts that are testing various ways to attract more minority undergraduates into biomedical careers. And high-quality mentoring is an important component of each project, known collectively as Building Infrastructure Leading to Diversity (BUILD). NIH is also funding researchers at UCLA to evaluate the effect of both NRMN and BUILD.

Despite its many moving parts, the consortium has a simple goal, says Hannah Valantine, NIH’s chief officer for scientific workforce diversity. “We want to learn what works for whom, so the results can be rapidly disseminated,” says Valantine, whose office oversees the consortium.

That makes NRMN essentially a research project. However, NIH Director Francis Collins seemed to be promising more when he unveiled the initiative 3 years ago. He acknowledged that 4 decades of NIH programs aimed at broadening participation by underrepresented groups had failed to move the needle. One serious consequence was the embarrassing gap of 10 points between the success rates of black and white applicants for NIH grants. Collins suggested that NRMN, which he called a “bold experiment,” would help NIH close the gap in success rates, a de facto metric of workforce diversity.

Tinkering with NRMN

What Collins didn’t mention was that, only 2 weeks earlier, he had intervened to ensure that NRMN would be a success, at least from his perspective.

Peer reviewers had given top marks to the original NRMN proposal, submitted by Boston College (BC) and containing the visions of a team of investigators from across the country. But once word of the pending award began to circulate, the leaders of several predominantly black academic institutions complained to Collins that none of their faculty members was part of the NRMN leadership team. They were already miffed that only two of the 10 BUILD sites would be located at their institutions, known collectively as historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs).

The 2011 study had already raised the possibility that NIH’s vaunted peer-review system might be biased against minorities, and Collins didn’t want to launch the diversity initiative without the support of the important HBCU constituency. But he was running out of time to win them over. So Collins took matters into his own hands by calling David Burgess, the lead principal investigator (PI) for the NRMN project.

National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins

Daniel Soñé Photography LLC/Flickr

Collins asked Burgess, a cell biologist at BC, to add cardiologist Elizabeth Ofili of Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta as a co-PI on the multipronged award and carve out a role for her. Nevermind that Burgess had never met Ofili, who teaches at one of only three medical schools at an HBCU, much less talked with her about how high-quality mentoring might help more minorities navigate the difficult path to becoming an independent investigator. Even more awkward was the fact that Ofili had been part of a competing group that had lost out to NRMN. Collins also seemed to disregard the fact that dozens of minority-serving institutions had endorsed Burgess’s vision for a national mentoring network.

Burgess, a member of the Cherokee tribe and a former president of the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science, was shocked by Collins’s request. But he felt he couldn’t say no.

“Dear David,” Collins began an email he sent to Burgess on 10 October 2014. (ScienceInsider obtained the correspondence through a Freedom of Information Act request.) “Thanks for your thoughtful response, and your willingness to consider creative solutions to the current dilemma. … Your willingness to bring Dr. Ofili into the co-PI group will go a long way toward reassuring the HBCUs that their concerns are being addressed.”

Worried about the possible ramifications if his role in reshaping NRMN became known, Collins also swore Burgess to secrecy. “I agree that you should be the one to approach her,” Collins wrote. “I also agree that my personal involvement in helping arrive at this mode should not be shared, lest that [knowledge] encourage other requests for NIH Director intervention.”

Your willingness to bring Dr. Ofili into the co-PI group will go a long way toward reassuring the HBCUs that their concerns are being addressed.

National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins, in an email to National Research Mentoring Network Principal Investigator David Burgess

Last year, Collins told ScienceInsider that he didn’t recall any of the phone calls or the slew of emails about NRMN. But Valerie Montgomery Rice, president of Morehouse School of Medicine, has spoken publicly of how she and her colleagues made their case to Collins after learning about the pending NRMN award. “We at Morehouse had to have multiple discussions at the NIH director’s level in order for us to be in on the NRMN mentoring team,” Montgomery Rice told other members of the advisory council to NIH’s National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities at its September 2015 meeting. (Montgomery Rice’s comments came about 1 hour and 20 minutes into the meeting.)

The HBCU community also shared its concerns about the BUILD program with Congress. Their lobbying was rewarded when the spending panel in the House of Representatives that oversees NIH’s budget told the agency last year “to ensure that graduate institutions with a historic mission of educating minorities in the health professional and biomedical sciences can participate” in BUILD.

NIH officials have defended Collins’s action, saying that it’s normal for the agency to negotiate the terms of an award such as NRMN. Such adjustments, made under a mechanism known as a cooperative agreement, are intended to maximize the project’s chances of success, says Lawrence Tabak, principal deputy NIH director. In NRMN’s case, Tabak says, NIH felt that Ofili’s experience leading multi-institutional collaborations to reduce health disparities would be very helpful to the fledgling mentoring network. Toward that end, Ofili was put in charge of NRMN’s outreach effort to organizations serving large minority communities, including NIH’s existing Research Centers in Minority Institutions Program.

Stumbling out of the gate

It took months for NRMN to regain its footing after the forced reshuffling by NIH. The turmoil ultimately led Burgess to step away from the project entirely in late 2015. (BC has since named biologist Rafael Luna to be NRMN’s executive director and head of its administrative core.)

NRMN researchers believe they are only now hitting their stride. “I think it’s fair to say that the first couple of years of the consortium [involved] a tremendous amount of ramp-up and testing things with good rationales, and some played out smoothly and others faced bumps in the road,” says Christine Pfund, a scientist at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research at the University of Wisconsin (UW) in Madison and head of the project’s mentor training core. “But in the past year we’re feeling we’re finally able to launch it in a way we wished we could have done in the first year.”

The most visible component of NRMN is its virtual mentoring network, which uses an internet interface, a database, and an algorithm to match interested students with candidate mentors pulled from a nationwide pool. It’s meant to level the playing field for students at less research-intensive institutions—where potential mentors might be scarce—and address feelings of isolation and self-doubt about entering the profession. It also aims to supplement any on-campus mentoring students may be already receiving.

The mentoring relationship was designed as a semesterlong interaction. And rather than simply engage in a free-wheeling conversation, mentors and mentees are encouraged to build each of their sessions around a training video both have watched ahead of time. The dozens of topics range from networking tips and analyses of the biomedical workforce, to stereotype threats and other issues that can impede the progress of minority scientists.

NRMN scientists had hoped that the structured approach would enhance the quality of the mentoring. But for many potential mentees, the length and format of the online mentoring sessions have become barriers to participation.

“We’re finding that [the semesterlong period] might have been too rigid a timeframe,” says J. K. Vishwanatha, a professor of genetics at the University of North Texas Health Science Center in Fort Worth and head of NRMN’s mentoring and networking core. “Some may want a longer relationship, some shorter. They may also want more flexibility to pick and choose the topics.”

We are building the plane as it’s flying.

J. K. Vishwanatha, University of North Texas Health Science Center

Vishwanatha wants to accommodate them, but he says figuring out a better format is harder than it looks. “We don’t want to just impose a new timeframe,” he says. “And we want people to take full advantage of the resources that are available.” He says the current format will likely remain for the duration of the initial grant.

Another problem is the interface itself. Last summer, Valantine told the director’s advisory council that “a complicated algorithm for matching mentees and mentors has slowed mentor recruitment and led to suboptimal community confidence in the program.”

Valantine was alluding to complications surrounding the initial process of registering with NRMN. After providing personal information, participants can choose from among the three services that NRMN offers—mentoring, networking, and professional training. But a significant number of those who select mentoring don’t go any further. “We actually have a lot of people in the system who say they want to be matched but don’t pull the trigger,” Pfund says.

The researchers aren’t sure why. One possibility is that mentees become confused or frustrated when they receive the names of three candidate mentors, Pfund speculates. “Maybe they get nervous, or don’t know how to choose, or worry that they will be rejected,” she says. “Maybe it would be better to just say, ‘Here’s your match.’ We’re exploring different platforms to find out where the bottleneck is.”

The website itself has been problematic. NRMN chose an existing mentoring interface, and it took a year to go live. Researchers have been tinkering with it ever since. “We are building the plane as it’s flying,” Vishwanatha confesses.

Growing participation

The plane was nearly empty when it took off—only 37 mentees and 16 mentors signed up during the first year. But since then the numbers have soared, reaching 3713 mentees and 1714 mentors as of 30 June. Vishwanatha says about 600 new people are joining every 3 months.

Who are they? The demographics of the mentee pool are shaped by the fact that NIH has decreed the program must be open to all comers. As a result, 21% of the mentees are non-Hispanic whites and 14% are Asian, two groups that are historically overrepresented in the life sciences. Blacks comprise the largest group of those underrepresented in science, making up 31% of the total, and Hispanics make up 26%. Female mentees outnumber men by more than a two-to-one margin.

The mentees, by race

Some 3574 people—undergraduates, graduate students, and postdocs—had registered for online mentoring as of 1 June.

CREDITS: (GRAPHIC) D. MALAKOFF/SCIENCE; (DATA) NATIONAL INSTITUTES OF HEALTH

Vishwanatha says the mentees are almost equally divided among undergraduates, graduate students, and postdocs. The latter two groups, he adds, are also interested in professional development and improving their own mentoring skills.

The racial makeup of mentors is decidedly more diverse than the overall academic workforce. Some 55% are white, with Asians, Hispanics, and blacks each constituting from 13% to 18% of the total. Fifty-eight percent of the mentors are women.

Tracking outcomes

A second part of the NRMN effort—teaching senior faculty to be better mentors—poses a different set of challenges, including the best way to measure progress. Pfund and her colleagues at UW and elsewhere have been developing curricula on culturally aware mentoring for more than a decade, with funding from NIH and other sources. NRMN has spurred those efforts, she says, by providing a “national platform and landscape to accelerate research and inform interventions.”

The goal is to improve the learning experience for all trainees. That means finding out which approaches work best for which groups and under what circumstances.

Pfund and her team have developed a two-stage approach. The first, called Level 1, focuses on building a strong mentor-mentee relationship across five skill domains: research, interpersonal, psychosocial, cultural, and sponsorship. Level 2 adds 6 hours of face-to-face training in cultural awareness, along with a 90-minute video. “At Level 1 we might talk about active listening,” she explains. “And then in Level 2, we add race to the conversation.”

At each point, the researchers try to assess not just what the faculty members have learned, but also how they plan to apply their new knowledge when interacting with mentees. Pfund says the amount of training that faculty receive, or what NRMN researchers call “dosage,” is an important variable.

Researchers are also hoping to demonstrate how the training can be scaled up on a nationwide level. Some 5000 people have participated in 188 events, resulting in more than 500 trained facilitators. The NRMN team has also built up an elite cadre of 38 master facilitators who are willing to travel around the country to train more facilitators and spread the gospel of mentoring.

Another component of NRMN is grantsmanship, that is, helping the next generation of scientists become independent investigators by obtaining their own funding. Some 432 people—a mixture of graduate students, postdocs, and early-career faculty members—have completed a process that starts with an idea for a research project and ends, several months later, with a fully fleshed-out proposal. It’s a diverse group by race: Thirty-four percent of the participants are black, 23% are white, 18% are Hispanic, 13% are Asian, and 5% are Native American.

Of that group, roughly a quarter has actually submitted a grant proposal to NIH. As of 30 June, seven of those 103 proposals had been funded, and another 64 were awaiting a response. The numbers may be small, but NRMN scientists say it’s an important first step. Few NIH applicants succeed on their first try, they note, adding that applicants can also use their new skills to win funding from foundations and other sources.

Too many to follow

Keith Norris is evaluating the diversity programs.

Keith Norris

Keith Norris, a nephrologist at UCLA’s medical school, is leading the third component of the diversity initiative. It’s the official assessment team for NRMN and BUILD, which NIH calls the Coordination and Evaluation Center (CEC).

Norris, who studies hypertension and chronic kidney disease in disadvantaged populations, has defined hallmarks of success in biomedical science. They cover such broad areas as participating in research as an undergraduate, pursuing a research-intensive training program as a graduate student, and publishing in top-tier journals as a postdoc and junior faculty member.

Although NRMN does some assessment of what mentees think about their training, it “hands them over” to Norris’s CEC as soon as the mentees have completed their virtual sessions. His job is to tease out—through surveys, interviews, and poring over the data—which variables make for good mentoring and how those elements influence a student’s career progression.

The first hurdle Norris faces is the sheer number of mentees participating in NRMN. Then there’s the enormous variation in how the mentees and mentors have interacted.

“We simply don’t have the person power to track thousands of people forever, much less to disaggregate those interventions and compare impacts,” he says. For example, “suppose you have two people who connect online, and the mentor suggests that the student take Biology 570. But they never talk to each other again. Then you have another pair who establish a relationship that extends over several years.” It’s hard to imagine, he says, a practical evaluation process that can capture and assess both types of interactions.

Instead, Norris plans to look primarily at what he calls “high-touch interventions” and then hope that the results generalize to the entire population. He’ll also use that approach to tease out differences in the mentoring experience for those from different racial, ethnic, cultural, and socio-economic groups. “While the goal of the initiative is to increase diversity and bolster minorities, it’s also valuable to know what works best for everyone,” he says. “And my sense is that 80% to 90% of what’s done will work for everybody.”

We simply don’t have the person power to track thousands of people forever, much less to disaggregate those interventions and compare impacts.

Keith Norris, University of California, Los Angeles, medical school

Norris faces an equally stiff challenge in assessing the professional development component of NRMN, including its work with senior faculty on culturally aware mentoring. Norris would like to know what happens once facilitators return to their campuses, but his ability to track their impact is quite limited.

“We can query them on things like the number of people they have trained, their perception of the skills they have acquired, and whether they think they are having an effect,” he says. “But we can’t follow up with the people they have trained” to learn their real impact.

To do that, Norris says, he’d need to survey them, which the federal government would have to approve. But Norris doubts that could happen in any reasonable length of time, nor does he have the money to extend his reach. (The White House didn’t greenlight his ability to collect data from the NRMN and BUILD sites until February, for example, more than 2 years after the initiative was announced.)

Even if he could contact those whom the facilitators have worked with, Norris says he might not be able to measure their contribution. “Suppose one of the facilitators was from UCLA, say, or another major university,” he explains. “It would be very challenging for us to determine the impact of one person at a gigantic institution that already has a number of strong mentors on its faculty.”

Changing campus norms

Hannah Valantine is the National Institutes of Health’s chief officer for scientific workforce diversity.

NIH/Wikimedia Commons

One key barrier facing the NIH diversity initiative, Valantine says, is a culture at academic institutions that has historically slighted the value of mentoring. She says other government programs are addressing that problem as part of a broader effort to increase minority participation in science. But there is one aspect of the problem—a work burden that Valantine calls “the minority tax”—that can hinder NRMN’s efforts to foster better mentoring.

The tax is paid by members of groups underrepresented in science, including women, when their institutions expect them to play an outsized role in solving the problem. They are often asked to serve on committees, for example, or undertake other special activities (such as targeted mentoring) aimed at improving diversity. NRMN data bear her out, as some 58% of those who have signed up to be mentors are women, despite making up less than one-fourth of the tenured faculty members in the field.

Valantine speaks from experience, as a black woman who spent 25 years on the medical school faculty at Stanford University and who led the school’s diversity efforts. “Because there are so few minority faculty, including women, the mentoring gets left to us,” she explains. She says the burden is enormous.

“So while you’re running around doing what you think is very valuable—that is, mentoring—guess what? You’re not spending enough time on your science. But when your institution evaluates you for tenure, guess what? The science takes precedence over how much time you spent on mentoring.”

“NRMN can’t change that culture overnight,” she continues. “But as they go around educating institutions about the importance of mentoring, they can also address how important it is to engage the entire faculty and not leave it just to women and underrepresented minorities. That’s where the institutional commitment comes in. We need leadership buy-in from the very top level.”

Because there are so few minority faculty, including women, the mentoring gets left to us.

Hannah Valantine, National Institutes of Health

Some institutions have displayed such leadership for decades. The Meyerhoff Scholars Program at the University of Maryland in Baltimore County and the work of faculty and administrators at Xavier University, a historically black institution in New Orleans, Louisiana, have been widely recognized, and both institutions received BUILD awards to expand those efforts.

But Norris says their success highlights the absence of a nationwide strategy. “A lot of what we’ve learned about good mentoring and what has formed the basis for NRMN and BUILD are drawn from single sites,” he says. “But these institutions are the New England Patriots of diversity,” he adds, referring to the sustained success of that National Football League franchise. “Every year the Patriots are successful. So the question is, ‘How do you get the other teams to be competitive?’”

Winkfield, who is now at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, has a suggestion: Tie NIH funding to a university’s demonstrated commitment to mentoring. She’d like to see the agency require institutions to compile and report data on the progress of minority students based on such metrics as the number who apply, get interviews, and are accepted into graduate school; the attrition rates for different programs; and the results of exit interviews with students who have decided to drop out.

But numbers alone aren’t enough, she warns. “Institutions that are good at getting NIH funding can write grants intended to show their concern without a strong commitment to diversity and inclusion,” she says. “And having a large lab with lots of minority students doesn’t necessarily mean that someone is a good mentor,” she notes. “I’ve had minority students at Harvard [University] come into my office crying, with stories about PIs who spend hours with other students and ignore them when they have a problem.”

“It’s great that NRMN offers a venue for students from underrepresented groups to find individuals who can speak to the issues they are facing,” Winkfield says. “But there also needs to be someone on-campus that they can turn to.”

NRMN’s ripple effect

NRMN’s broad mandate to use mentoring to help boost the prospects of underrepresented minorities may already be paying dividends to other, similar efforts. Of course, that will further complicate efforts to assess its impact.

Winkfield, for one, hopes to use NRMN’s career videos in an NIH-funded training program to help minority high school students interested in health inequities make it through college. “Why reinvent the wheel when all this good curriculum is already out there?” she asks. She also wants to make use of NRMN’s work with senior faculty on inclusivity and cultural awareness.

“It’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks,” she says. “At Harvard Medical School, I was involved in a career development program for senior faculty. And when they would go on rounds with their students, you could tell which ones were really engaged and which ones were thinking, ‘I don’t believe any of this,’ or ‘I don’t need it to do a good job.’”

Similarly, Lee—the UCLA postdoc featured in an NRMN success stories video—isn’t just a participant in NRMN. She’s also the founder of an online mentoring network for Native Americans called United Natives.

Lee tried to launch it in 2010, while working on a Ph.D. in public health at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas. But she was simply too busy then to realize her vision. This past spring she revived the idea, and within 3 days she had recruited 30 Native American mentors for the network, a tiny, all-volunteer effort that Lee runs in her spare time. Last month, they were matched with a handful of undergraduate students and Lee hopes that the fledgling network can go to school on some of things NRMN is already doing.

An early enlistee

Sergio Ita, another NRMN “success story” in the eyes of NIH officials, is a living example of how it takes a village to raise a scientist. Now a postdoc at David Smith’s virology laboratory at UC San Diego, Ita might never have gotten there without the help of two long-running NIH programs to attract minorities into biomedical research.

Ita, a first-generation Mexican-American/Chicano who grew up in Santa Fe, joined the U.S. Marine Corps right after high school. By the time he enrolled at a community college in southern California in 2004, he was married with two children. The first school he attended, Palomar College, had an NIH program, Bridges to the Baccalaureate, that helps students make the transition to a 4-year college. He chose California State University in San Marcos not simply because it was across the street from Palomar, but because of its Minority Access to Research Careers (MARC) program, which NIH also funds.

My Story: Sergio Ita, Ph.D. from NRMN on Vimeo.

“I had thought about becoming a doctor, but I was open to other careers,” Ita says. “MARC taught me what I needed to do to become a competitive candidate for a Ph.D. program.”

He did well enough to win a spot in the graduate virology program at Harvard Medical School in Boston, where he worked under Welkin Johnson. Ita followed him when Johnson was recruited by BC, where Johnson introduced him to Burgess, who had just received the NRMN award.

“Once I found out about NRMN, I decided to join as a mentee,” Ita says. “I had already worked as a mentor to undergraduates, where I think you can have the biggest impact on their decision about whether to stay in science. I wanted to see what it was like to be mentored.”

Ita participated in what he calls NRMN 1.0. “It was a very basic interface,” he recalls. “You made a profile—I said I was interested in pursuing an academic track in virology, immunology, or infectious diseases, but I also included teaching and working in industry—and it spit out mentors who matched that profile. And that’s how I got matched with Maria Mouchess from Genentech.”

Mouchess had only recently joined the San Francisco, California, biotech company after doing a postdoc with Mark Anderson at UC San Francisco. But she helped Ita navigate that treacherous career step at the end of a Ph.D. “We emailed several times over maybe 6 months,” he recalls. “We didn’t really use the videos. I was stressed out about getting some papers out before I graduated, and her suggestions were very useful.”

Through Burgess, Ita found out about another NIH program that gives minority postdocs a chance to teach at institutions with large minority populations. When Ita told Mouchess that he had applied for support under the Institutional Research and Academic Career Development Awards (IRACDA program, she mentioned she had also been an IRACDA fellow. “It was another thing we had in common,” he notes.

Ita says he has too much on his plate right now to be active in NRMN. But he thinks NRMN can be a valuable complement to the other NIH-funded programs designed to help students, especially undergraduates, find their way.

“Creating a profile [on NRMN] will put them on a path to figuring out what it takes to succeed in science,” he asserts. “And if they can combine that advice from a mentor with getting into a lab, they are almost there.”

On paper, in practice

Christine Pfund (left) talks with biologist Blake Riggs (right) of San Francisco State University in California at a poster session this month.

Jeffrey Mervis

As NRMN researchers move into the fourth year of the grant, they have begun thinking about their final report to NIH on the project’s accomplishments. They say it must balance an inherent wish to generate publications that will resonate with a review panel judging their next application—articles that presumably will also enhance their own careers—with an equally strong desire to serve as many people as possible.

“NRMN leadership has spent a lot of time talking about whether our priority is to boost the number of participants or pursue the research,” Pfund says. “And the answer is both. At the same time, when you have a limited budget, you must weigh the proportion of effort going to each type of user.”

As an evaluator, Norris says he leans toward boosting the participation numbers. “Reviewers always like to see publications,” he says. “But there has not been an opportunity for significant follow-up [of the impacted populations], so as a reviewer I wouldn’t be concerned that there are not a lot of publications.”

“I would like to see active engagement of a high number of students and faculty,” he says. “That would give me confidence that we are collecting the type of data needed to gain the understanding that would come out later in papers.”

NIH will have the final word. Valantine says agency officials are still discussing the evaluation criteria, but that she’ll look closely at NRMN’s strategy for spreading the word.

“The details are being hashed out, but a major focus is on dissemination,” she says about the upcoming program announcement. “I want phase one of NRMN to be able to point to elements that have worked very well, and then to figure out how to scale it up across the nation. That is what I would like to see.”