As a high school student, a career in science just wasn’t on the radar for Russell Ledet. After five years of active-duty service in the United States Navy, he discovered chemistry and biology at Southern University and A&M College in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. But a doctoral degree still seemed a distant possibility. “Students like me at historically black universities often don’t have as much exposure to a PhD program or always know that it’s an option,” he says.
That all changed in 2012 when Ledet received a United Negro College Fund/Merck Undergraduate Science Research Scholarship Award and met Joel D. Oppenheim, PhD, professor emeritus of microbiology. A former director of NYU Langone Health’s Sackler Institute of Graduate Biomedical Sciences and a member of the scholarship’s selection committee, Dr. Oppenheim became a close mentor and encouraged Ledet to apply to the Sackler PhD program. It helped that several other recipients of the scholarship were already at NYU Langone. “It was comforting to know I wouldn’t be alone,” Ledet says.
Last year, Ledet was recognized with a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Gilliam Fellowship for Advanced Study, an award that seeks to increase the diversity of working scientists. This May, he will defend his doctoral dissertation in molecular oncology and pharmacology. Ledet credits his success to Sackler’s unique fellowship opportunities for underrepresented minorities, close mentorships, and a continuing sense of community cultivated by Sackler’s long-standing commitment to inclusiveness.
Diversity in biomedical research has never been more important. The nation’s healthcare needs are evolving along with its shifting demographics and will require research and researchers to reflect those changes and focus new attention on growing problems and disparities.
A diverse talent pool that draws from traditionally underrepresented minorities such as black, Hispanic, and Native American scientists can bring fresh energy and perspectives to help devise solutions and drive innovation. Despite the demand for highly trained professionals such as medical scientists, however, recent reports suggest that the nation’s scientific workforce is no more diverse than it was in 2001, highlighting the need for more targeted outreach efforts.
To help close the diversity gap and nurture an array of skills and points of view among the next generation of researchers, Sackler Institute has developed a host of programs and strategies to connect with underrepresented minority communities throughout the country. “NYU Langone has worked hard over the years to build a national reputation for inclusiveness and diversity,” says Naoko Tanese, PhD, current director of the Sackler Institute, professor of microbiology, and associate dean for biomedical sciences.
Take its pioneering Summer Undergraduate Research Program, launched in 1990 in a joint partnership with NYU Langone’s Office of Diversity Affairs. The program, which invites 30 aspiring scientists to spend 9 weeks over the summer conducting research at the Medical Center, was among the first to emphasize the recruitment of minority students. At the end of the summer, the undergraduate students present their work to other researchers, and most of them go on to pursue a PhD, an MD, or an MD/PhD.
When prospective students can’t experience NYU Langone firsthand, NYU Langone often goes to them. Dr. Tanese and other Sackler representatives routinely conduct in-person recruiting at national conferences for underrepresented science students, including the National Diversity in STEM Conference hosted by the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science and the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students. “I go to students poster presentations to gauge their commitment and passion for science,” Dr. Tanese says. “There are a lot of one-on-one interactions that we try to cultivate in order to attract these minority students to our community.”
The Sackler Institute’s diversity initiatives extend well beyond recruitment to help ensure that the program retains enrolled graduate students and helps them achieve degrees and success in their chosen fields. On campus, multiple student groups such as the Student Diversity Initiative, NYU are Women in STEM, Muslim Students Association, and Sackler LGBTA have helped students connect with others with similar interests or backgrounds. Ledet and other Sackler graduate students also serve on the executive board of the New York City Minority Graduate Student Network, which helps minority students interact with their peers and other science professionals throughout the metropolitan region.
Sackler graduate students, in turn, have completed the circle by initiating outreach efforts to area high schools to further encourage underrepresented minority students who are interested in a STEM career. Through the NYU Clear Direction Mentoring program, co-founded in 2014 by Ledet and Julia Derk, another PhD candidate at Sackler, graduate students become long-term mentors to high school juniors in New York City schools. From the initial 15 to 20 participants, the program has swelled to more than 100 mentor–mentee pairs. “The students come in and say, ‘Wow, my mentor looks like me, and my mentor is also a scientist!’” Ledet says.
The combined outreach efforts at NYU Langone have had a lasting impact.
Over the past decade, about 26 percent of all U.S. enrollees in Sackler programs have been underrepresented minorities, significantly higher than the 2013 national average of about 20 percent. In addition, more than half of all PhD and MD/PhD students enrolled in 2017 are women.
“We’ve done well in continuing to attract and retain very strong students because of our diverse communities who are very supportive and who network and reach out to their alma maters,” Dr. Tanese says. Students who accept an offer from Sackler instead of other peer institutions, in fact, often cite the diverse and supportive atmosphere as a big factor in their decision. “I think that’s a real strength, and we’re proud of that,” Dr. Tanese says.