The Graduate Student Ambassador (GSA) program was organized by the American Physiological Society’s (APS) Trainee Advisory Committee in 2015. The goal of the program is to train graduate students to act as liaisons between APS and local undergraduate and graduate students. GSAs visit schools in their local area to share their experiences as graduate students, discuss physiology careers and the benefits of an APS membership, and encourage students to consider becoming a member of APS. The program has a unique, symbiotic relationship in that GSAs learn valuable outreach, public speaking, and leadership skills, while APS receives promotion of their awards, programs, and memberships. One particular goal of the GSA program is to recruit and retain individuals from under-represented communities. This is the aim that attracted me to the program.
As a first-generation college student, I was raised in a very low socioeconomic background. My exposure to careers was limited and like countless other young girls, I grew up with a short supply of role models who looked like me. While most of my public school teachers were female, the science labs and principal’s offices were considered masculine domains. In my mind, a scientist was that image we all remember of the mad chemist brewing his potions in a lab, hair all in disarray. Although I got the messy hair right, I couldn’t picture myself as this version of a scientist. I didn’t know anything about college because nobody in my life had ever been to one. I certainly didn’t know what a Ph.D. was at the time. By luck and happenstance, I wound up at the University of Kentucky for my undergraduate studies as a nontraditional student following community college. UK is a Research 1 institution, so I was exposed to the scientific method from the start. However, looking back, I’ve always wondered what if I had attended a different university? Would I have ever found my niche in research? And, thus, is the goal of the GSA program: to expose students to careers in research and promulgate the ways in which APS can assist them in these pursuits.
When I first got wind of the new GSA program, I was quick to apply. From the beginning, I was excited by the prospect of sharing my experiences as a graduate student with undergraduates. I knew I wanted to visit less research-intensive universities and try to reach under-represented students, first-generation college students, and students from low socioeconomic backgrounds. I recognized the need for diversity in STEM and wanted to contribute to efforts being made to increase it. According to the National Science Foundation, while blacks and Hispanics constitute 36% of the US resident population ages 18-24, they only represent 17% of enrolled graduate students. There is even less representation at the level of doctorate holders (Figure 3). Ethnic and cultural representations in science do not match their share in the US population. However, it is absolutely essential to the growth of STEM to sample from all groups of people.
Science is meant to be an objective process, but much of science has been shaped by individuals of a similar background. This not only halts progress but can actually hurt it. For example, the standard medical treatment for breast cancer used to be radical mastectomies. It wasn’t until female voices were welcomed that alternative treatments were implemented—treatments that allowed women to keep their breasts and have been shown to be just as, if not more, effective. Progress was made because of a different perspective. The same is true of drug development, our understanding of sex differences in cardiovascular disease, even air-bag design which was initially tailored to a man’s height and thus not as effective for women. A diverse and inclusive program can promote widely applicable and lifelong learning so that historically under-represented groups can contribute to future breakthroughs with a new perspective. If fields are not diverse and inclusive, we are not cultivating potential but instead losing talent.
Berea College, the first coeducational and interracial college in the south, is an example of an ongoing effort to increase inclusion. This school, located in Berea, Kentucky, is a 4-year university that offers a tuition-free education to every single student. They enroll academically promising, economically challenged students from every state in the U.S. and 60 other countries. Over one third of their student population are of color, 8% are international, and 70% are from the Appalachian region and Kentucky. They are inclusive regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, race, citizenship status, etc. Despite not being a research intensive university, they have an excellent science program with a newly built Natural Sciences and Health building featuring state-of-the-art teaching laboratory equipment. They also encourage students to participate in the Kentucky Biomedical Research Infrastructure Network, a program designed to support undergraduate students in biomedical research, promote collaboration, and improve access to biomedical facilities.
I wanted to visit Berea to share my experiences as a graduate student, discuss the different career paths within physiology, and provide interested students with information about beneficial awards and programs offered through APS. Many of the students I spoke with didn’t know much about graduate school or obtaining a Ph.D. They seemed intrigued by my experience as a teaching assistant to fund my program. Berea College offers a unique work program at their school where students work as part of their tuition-free enrollment. Some act as teaching assistants in their courses, giving these students the experience they need to enter a funded graduate program with a teaching component. A lot of the students didn’t realize, though, that you could simply apply to a doctoral program with a bachelor’s degree—they thought you needed to obtain a master’s degree first. Most of the students were particularly interested in the undergraduate summer research programs offered through APS, such as the STRIDE fellowship. They wanted to know more about the Porter Physiology Development Fellowship for graduate students. I was also very excited to share with them the Martin Frank Diversity Travel Fellowship Award to attend the Experimental Biology conference.
I had a meaningful and productive visit to Berea College. My next step will be visiting a local community college, another area where efforts to promote diversity and inclusion are progressing. Community colleges are also an excellent place to reach nontraditional students, such as myself. These students sometimes transfer to larger universities to finish their bachelor’s degree, but being a transfer student often doesn’t allow for exposure to research as an undergraduate. I hope to encourage these students to pursue careers in physiology.
If you’re interested in contributing to this mission, consider applying to become a GSA. The position is a 2 year term and requires you to attend Experimental Biology each year of your term. The applications for 2019 are currently under review.
National Science Foundation, National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics. 2017. Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering: 2017. Special Report NSF 17-310. Arlington, VA. Available at www.nsf.gov/statistics/wmpd/.