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HHMI’s own brand of diversity in the life sciences

“Zero is a real problem.”

Erin O’Shea is talking about the number of minority professors in life science departments at many of the top U.S. research universities. O’Shea, a systems biologist, trained and taught in that rarified environment for 2 decades before joining the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) in 2013 and becoming its president last September. But the 51-year-old systems biologist says that the lack of diversity at those schools weakens the U.S. scientific enterprise by shrinking the pool of minds equipped to make discoveries.

One of O’Shea’s first moves as HHMI president was committing $25 million a year to support postdocs from underrepresented groups. Her hope was that they would eventually change the color—and culture—of their departments as they moved into leadership positions, in addition to serving as role models for the next generation of scientists.

This week, HHMI announced the first 15 winners of its Hanna H. Gray fellowships, named after the former University of Chicago in Illinois professor and longtime HHMI trustee. But their demographics might surprise you.

Five are white, matching the number of blacks chosen. A majority, eight, are women, mirroring the fact that women receive slightly more than half the life science Ph.D.s awarded by U.S. institutions. Two of the fellows are Asian-Americans, a group heavily overrepresented in the sciences.

All were eligible under the program’s definition of underrepresentation, which included women, those from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, and people who self-identify with a group that is underrepresented in the life sciences. O’Shea defends the inclusion of women, noting that “women may start out at parity in grad school, but we lose them at every stage after the Ph.D.” Women constitute only a quarter of those who are full professors, she says.

The competition attracted more than 700 applicants, and the winners were chosen for their scientific promise, O’Shea says. “It’s an amazing group,” she says of the 35 finalists who made presentations this summer to a panel of judges at HHMI’s headquarters in Bethesda, Maryland. Almost all would have been funded had the program’s budget been larger, she noted. As a consolation prize, each of the 20 runners-up received $10,000 to use for professional development.

The new fellows now have both the money (up to $1.4 million over 8 years) and status—more than half are working in the labs of HHMI investigators, themselves an elite group of scientists—to succeed in the ultracompetitive world of academic science. If they make it, O’Shea believes that even a small change in the demographics at top universities can make a big difference for the profession.

Harvard University and the University of California, San Francisco, are each hosting three fellows, with the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena snaring two; the rest work at other top 20 departments.

“Those departments train a significant number of students,” O’Shea says, recalling the freshman chemistry class of 550 that she used to teach at Harvard. “And having even one or two [minority] faculty members would be significant. I remember students of color coming up to me—Harvard’s student body is quite diverse—and asking, ‘Can I become a professor. I don’t see anyone that looks like me up there.’”

In addition to funding the new fellows well into their first faculty position, O’Shea says HHMI is committed to providing them with good mentoring and career support. The fact that so many will be working with HHMI investigators is no coincidence, she says. The fellows will be attending HHMI-sponsored meetings with the goal of building networks that will improve their odds of success. “That’s something other funders, including federal agencies, wouldn’t be able to do as easily,” O’Shea notes.

At the same time, O’Shea admits that “we don’t have a lot of control over the environment” that influences whether a young scientist from an underrepresented group will succeed. Researchers who study diversity often refer to the “minority tax” on them—the additional requests to mentor minority students, serve on university inclusion committees, and otherwise help institutions that lack diversity. Those requests can steal time from doing the high-quality research needed to win them tenure and career recognition. In addition, many senior faculty members may not be adept at mentoring with a junior colleague from a different racial, ethnic, or socioeconomic group.

HHMI is still wrestling with how to measure the program’s impact, O’Shea says. “Would they have succeeded anyway, without us?” she asks. “We can’t do that experiment.” And although HHMI isn’t planning a formal program evaluation, it hopes to keep tabs on the career trajectories of the finalists not chosen to see how they compare with the winners.

Hughes expects to fund at least three more cohorts, she says, and is looking for outside support to extend the program. Applications are due in January for the 2018 cohort, and HHMI has tightened eligibility to those who received their Ph.D. or M.D. degrees at U.S. institutions.

O’Shea hopes to see positive results as soon as the fellows take up tenure-track positions and begin to establish themselves as independent investigators. But even if it takes longer to have an impact, she is convinced that the Gray fellowships are worth funding. “If people can just get off to a really good start, it makes everything so much easier.”