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Underrepresented Minorities in Science: The NIH Black Scientists Association: Addressing the Needs of Black Biomedical Scientists and the Black Community


"No man is an island." However, this sense of isolation is felt by many black graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and scientists in biomedical research. Support from colleagues who can readily identify with the difficulties of underrepresented minorities in navigating the biomedical research enterprise is scarce. I can understand this feeling, having been the only graduate student of color in my department for 5 years. Move to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the largest biomedical research institution in the world, and the scale is much larger but the surroundings are similar. So, in 1995, the NIH Black Scientists Association (NIHBSA) formed out of the need for a support network to foster the development of black scientists in this large research enterprise. The NIHBSA's vision is that the "NIH is a place where black scientists lead, thrive in research, and advance professionally." With more than 17,000 employees and a budget of more than $20 billion, the NIH is mandated to improve the health of the nation through research and research training. To fully achieve this mandate, our research training programs must include people of all racial and ethnic backgrounds.

Why the NIHBSA?

Why is it important to have black scientists at the NIH and other prestigious biomedical research institutions? One crucial reason is customer service. One hypothesis is that a significant portion of health disparities between minority and majority populations in our country is due to a lack of access to reliable health information. (See the NIH's Office of Research on Minority Health for more information.) We frequently receive requests from friends or family members for health information. Because we are inside the biomedical research enterprise, we know exactly where to locate information about clinical trials or find a Web site describing the treatment for a particular disease. What happens to the needs of underrepresented minorities who do not have access to friends or family "on the inside" for health information critical to their well-being? As NIH employees and trainees, we feel that it is our duty to help with NIH's mission to improve the health of the nation in any way we can, not just as laboratory researchers. The NIHBSA founded the NIH-wide "Science Working for Us" seminar series, held twice a year, to help provide current information on diseases that affect the black community. We have covered topics such as HIV/AIDS, sickle cell anemia, organ donation, asthma, and prostate cancer--all from the minority perspective.

Our Goals

How can an organization such as the NIHBSA be brought to fruition? It is simply a matter of hard work and dedication by a few individuals with common goals and visions. Our goals are to 1) establish a professional support network for black scientists; 2) promote the research activities of black scientists; 3) achieve full representation and participation of black scientists at all occupational and executive levels within the NIH; and 4) monitor the institution's support for the achievement and development of black scientists. Attainment of these goals will ensure that the research-training mandate of the NIH is being fulfilled. To help us reach our goals, we have had to identify or develop financial resources. This can be accomplished through dues, donations, and fund raising. Additionally, some NIH offices, departments, and institutes with interest in specific projects have supported our activities. Examples include the co-sponsoring of seminars and workshops by NIH institutes that support research in the topic areas and by the NIH Office of Equal Opportunity and other offices that share the NIHBSA's goal of increasing recruitment of minority scientists at NIH.

Our Structure

How are we organized? We have full membership, student membership, and associate membership (for individuals who are not physically located at the NIH campus in Bethesda, Maryland). Membership is open to individuals who support our goals, regardless of race, ethnic background, or national origin. We meet monthly and provide opportunities for members and visitors to discuss research, science administration, or other topics of interest to black scientists at NIH and beyond. To help communicate our activities, achievements, and goals, we have developed a listserv and Web site.

Besides holding monthly meetings, we provide mentoring to students, postdoctoral fellows, and tenure-track investigators. We have a database of mentors who have research or administrative experience and are willing to share their acquired knowledge with incoming students, postdoctoral fellows, or tenure-track investigators. We have postdoctoral fellows mentoring students, tenure-track investigators mentoring postdoctoral fellows, and senior investigators mentoring tenure-track investigators to achieve a constant flow of acquired knowledge. We are developing an electronic database to assist in this process. Interested members will be able to submit profiles and volunteer to be a mentor or request a mentor. ( Note: This mentoring database is for NIHBSA members' use only.)

We also have developed the Cheryl Torrence-Campbell Memorial Scholarship, which awards two $1000 scholarships to graduating seniors from Washington, D.C., high schools who plan to pursue undergraduate studies in the sciences. The scholarship is named in honor of a former black NIH postdoctoral fellow and assistant professor at Morgan State University in Baltimore, Maryland.

Reaching Out

How do we spread the word? NIH is huge--there is the main campus in Bethesda, and there are off-site locations in Baltimore, Frederick, Rockville, and Gaithersburg, Maryland; Research Triangle Park in North Carolina; and more distant sites in Montana and Arizona. The task of getting the word out to the NIH community, let alone the black scientific community, is not easy. On campus, we promote our activities "by any means necessary." At NIH, there are many types of scientific appointments, making it difficult for groups such as the NIHBSA to meet and track newly hired minority scientists. We speak to different groups at NIH, most recently training and recruitment coordinators, which have representatives from most of the institutes that make up the NIH. We use the Office of Education, which has contact with the fellows committee and student trainees, participate in the NIH orientation fair, and are listed in the NIH Intramural Research Sourcebook . One of our goals is to inform the NIH scientific directors and other NIH officials about our activities and explain how we can help them improve the training and recruitment of black and other minority scientists. We hope this will allow us to be in contact with more black scientists as they enter the NIH. For the extramural community, we provide information about the NIHBSA at professional meetings. This has included an oral presentation specifically on the NIHBSA at the American Society for Cell Biology annual meeting and presentations at many universities.

The Future

Why is the NIHBSA timely? NIH's scientific labor force must begin to reflect the demographic changes that are being projected in this country over the next 10 to 20 years. A cadre of well-trained racial and ethnic minority scientists will be a necessity for this institution to remain the premier biomedical research center in the world. Support of organizations such as the NIHBSA can serve to enhance the recruitment, transitioning, training, and professional development of these scientists, who can become the liaisons to their communities. Our vision is clear: In the future, NIH will be a place where black scientists lead, thrive in research, and work for the betterment of NIH and the country.

Alfred Johnson is the immediate past president of the NIH Black Scientists Association and co-chair of the Communication and Membership Committee. At NIH, he is the director of the Undergraduate Scholarship Program for students from disadvantaged backgrounds ( and a research investigator at the National Cancer Institute. He received his undergraduate degree in chemistry from Albany State University in Georgia and his doctorate in biomedical sciences from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

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