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Underrepresented Minorities in Science: Collaborations -- Critical to Research Success at Minority Institutions


Many minority-serving institutions (MSIs) and historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) fall into the category of institutions that prioritize teaching over research productivity (as measured by the teaching load, which can exceed 15 hours per semester) and lack research space and resources. This reality does not negate the fact that scholarly productivity remains a key component of evaluation for promotion and tenure. A faculty member at such an institution must devise a means of developing a research program amidst challenges not faced by colleagues at major research institutions, where the likelihood of receiving independent funding is heightened by a stronger research environment and access to adequate mentorship.

As a member of the faculty at an MSI ( Long Island University, Brooklyn) that prides itself on its small class sizes and high faculty to student ratio, I am faced with a teaching load equivalent to 12 hours per week, not including time for preparation, grading, and mentoring students. Although this environment represents a personal choice for which I have no regrets thus far, I have had to come up with solutions to the personal and professional challenges of fostering research activities. These solutions are necessary to placate those who evaluate my value to my institution and to satisfy my needs as a scientist.

Finding Your Scientific Society

The most critical component for success in scholarly activity is being in the loop of information exchange in your field. Personal contact with colleagues who share similar research interests provides information on funding sources, opportunities for possible collaborations, and the direction of scholarly interest in the field. Several societies representing different areas of investigation have annual meetings, providing opportunities for interaction with other scientists with similar interests. If you are unsure which society is best for you and your interests, check out the journal that publishes the research papers in your field. Many journals are published by societies, and the best society will be the one whose journal you read. If personal and institutional resources prohibit the immediate identification of such a journal, then search an online index (e.g., PubMed). Having identified the society, information on regional and national meetings can be attained from literature published by the society or through its Web site.

Finding Funding to Attend a Society's Meeting

Once information is gathered on the time and place of the society meeting, then comes the daunting task of securing funds to pay for travel, registration, and accommodations. This becomes quite a challenge in the absence of independent grant funding and institutional budgets for such purposes. A recommended strategy is to make written requests to your dean and department chair for such funds. It is important to clearly state the possible long-term benefits of attendance to the institution. For example, attending a meeting could help forge research collaborations that could benefit faculty and students and lead to eventual publications and independent grant funding--all positive benefits for the institution. If you receive funding from one source, use it to encourage support from another--a modest bequest from the head of your department can be leveraged for matching funding from your dean. Remember that it is important to identify with the interests of those from which you request funds. A request that reflects these interests and those of the university is more likely to be supported. Do not hesitate to take advantage of these opportunities as, in addition to being in the institution's interest, these activities are in your personal and professional interest.

Additionally, you can look outside of your institution for funding to attend society meetings. Usually, information on such funding opportunities may be gleaned from the appropriate society. Access to such funding often requires the recipient being a presenter at the meeting. Other funds might be targeted for faculty from underrepresented minorities in the sciences, or in some cases, nonminority faculty from MSIs and HBCUs who will be accompanied by students from such institutions. Many times such funds are administered by a minorities affairs committee (MAC) within the society. The necessity of such committees will be immediately obvious when you attend a typical society meeting. One of the more active MACs is the one within the American Society for Cell Biology ( ASCB). This committee serves as an exemplar that is unmatched based on my observations of its effectiveness and the range of opportunities it administers. The MACs page is linked to the ASCB home page, where detailed descriptions of its many funding opportunities are available.

Another program to bring scientists to meetings is that run by the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology ( FASEB). FASEB is the recipient of a Minorities Access to Research Careers (MARC) award from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). One of the many activities under FASEB's MARC program provides funding for a faculty member to be accompanied by two students to attend one of the annual meetings of the many societies under the FASEB umbrella. In the past, the award covered all expenses associated with the attendance of the society meetings, but more recently, the awards have since been fixed to $1000 per faculty member and $700 per student (excluding registration fees which are covered by the award at the early registration rate). The level of this award is adequate, if the meeting's location and distance from the awardee's institution do not make transportation costs prohibitive. I have used such awards as leverage for requests to my institution to fund students to accompany me to other meetings.

Networking to Collaborations

Once funding is secured, the meeting will provide you with opportunities to network. This network of valuable contacts will make the establishment of a workable research program possible. Additionally, the meeting will provide your students with valuable exposure to research activities (remember, these students will be helping with your research program). Generally, scientists at these meetings are accessible and open to discussions regarding mutually beneficial collaborations. If you are not an established researcher, it is best to seek collaborations with someone who not only shares your area of interest, but also heads a well-funded lab. As an added benefit, your collaborator may become your mentor, fostering your career development. This collaboration will not be a one-sided arrangement; you will bring your enthusiasm, prior training, and willingness to work to the table. These attributes are not lost on investigators who recognize the value of a well-trained pair of hands in the laboratory.

If you intend to carry out a collaboration during the academic year, you'll need to consider geographic proximity in selecting a potential collaborator. Most of the research will likely be executed in the laboratory of your collaborator, at least until funds are secured to move some of the work to your institution. Geography will be less of a problem if the research will occur in the summer or another significant block of time committed to the collaboration (e.g., a sabbatical). However, in such cases, immediate funding becomes more critical as there are issues of travel, housing, and summer salary.

Funding the Collaborations

The establishment of a collaboration often begs the question as to the funding of the collaboration. Sometimes your collaborator is flushed with funds so that other funding might not be necessary. More often, the acquisition of independent funding for the collaboration is appreciated by all involved. If your potential collaborator has a grant from NIH or the National Science Foundation (NSF), you might qualify for supplemental funding that will absorb the additional funding requirements of the collaboration. The application process for supplemental funding is much less arduous than that of the initial grant (with a relatively short turnaround time between application and award). Information as to the requirements for the supplemental application may be retrieved from the project director who supervises your potential collaborator's grant. As mentioned above, if your intention is to spend summers or a sabbatical in the laboratory of your collaborator, then there are considerations of summer salary and housing. It is important to find out if your probable funding sources cover such expenses.

Other sources of funding include the MACs within your society of interest. For example, the ASCB-MAC has a visiting professorship program that funds faculty from MSIs and HBCUs to spend the summer with an established researcher at a major research institution. Of course, the established researcher has to be a member of ASCB, but the membership application may be submitted with the application for the award. There are other such awards that are institution-based such as the NSF-funded Northeast Alliance program run out of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

Research institutes such as the Marine Biological Laboratory ( MBL) in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, and Friday Harbor Laboratories ( FHL) at the University of Washington provide funds for scientists to conduct summer research on site. Among the several MBL fellowships is the Josiah Macy fellowship, which provides funding for the rental of laboratory space, housing, and supplies. The Macy fellowship also provides funding with stipend for one of your students.

A recommended path is to establish a collaboration with a permanent or established summer scientist at one of these institutes and use that as the justification for the fellowship. A summer at the MBL is nothing short of a life-transforming experience. The level of intellectual stimulation and exposure is simply indescribable. My summers there as a student and a researcher served to introduce me to a level of scientific discourse to which I otherwise would not have had access. FHL has similar fellowships and further information may be gleaned from their Web site.

Asking for What You Need

Finally, a direct approach to a major research institutional might just yield the result that you dare to propose. A recent phone call to express gratitude to a colleague for presenting a seminar in my department was answered by a visitor who happened to be a senior faculty member at a major research university located a 45-minute subway ride from Long Island University (LIU). An inquiry about the weather in New York ended with a proposal on my part for a collaborative pipeline in which LIU faculty may collaborate with established scientists at the research institution. This pipeline would provide access to students within our master's program, which includes a significant number of underrepresented minority students. This proposal led to a $20,000 pilot program, planned and funded by the research institution within 2 months after the initial conversation. The summer of 2001 will be the second summer under this program. The program stands to be of tremendous benefit, not only to the individual scientists and students, but also to the participating institutions.

For those who have chosen either by necessity or passion to forge a career at an institution whose resources are not focused primarily on research, a successful research program is still critical for recognition by your peers inside and outside of your institution. I have found, through personal experience and observation, that one effective way to achieve success is by forging working relationships with those individuals who have access to the necessary resources. Such funding resources can be used to set up opportunities for networking and collaborations with scientists who can provide the needed research infrastructure and mentorship.