The Importance of Underrepresented Minority (URM) Representation in Physiology

In 2000 Congress voted to approve the adoption of legislation based on the recommendation of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to assist in ways to increase the number of underrepresented minorities in medicine [1]. Subsequently, the National Science Foundation (NSF), showed that the number of African Americans who held a doctorate or master’s degree increased by two-fold as of 2016 since 1996 [2]. Conversely, it was shown that black faculty representation was not reflected in the increase in minority trainees at universities such as John Hopkins University and other universities [3, 4]. This lack of representation diminishes the overall opportunity for one to see and attain mentorship at early stages of career development. The National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering (NACME) released that only 5% of African Americans were meeting college readiness benchmark scores in 2012 as compared to 32% for white students [5]. These alarming findings show that from an early stage many African American students are still not on a path of upward mobility and success. The discrepancy in college readiness between African American students and their white counterparts is clearly exhibited in the underrepresentation of African Americans in mid-level science positions to national administrative positions in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Ultimately, if the majority of medical researchers are white, and illnesses such as diabetes and hypertension impact a significant number of African Americans, this creates a pressing need for African Americans to have a greater involvement in medical research. In lieu of this, there is a burgeoning need for improvement to promote the inclusion of underrepresented minorities in STEM fields. In accordance, organizations like the American Physiological Society (APS), have developed several programs targeted toward minority outreach in their unremitting commitment to diminishing disparities in STEM.


From the Porter Physiology Development Fellowship to Physiological Understanding (PhUn) Week, APS has repeatedly demonstrated a collective interest in the success of underrepresented minorities. The Porter Physiology Development Fellowship prioritizes awarding successful underrepresented students who may be at institutes with limited funding and resources. In addition to financial support, APS encourages outreach in the field of physiology in its Graduate Student Ambassador Program. This program specifically functions in educating college students from distinct backgrounds and upbringings on the subject of physiological research and associated career opportunities. Likewise, PhUn week serves to introduce younger students from marginalized communities to the field of physiology. These kinds of programs are paramount in reducing the gap in representation for underrepresented groups, not only in physiology, but across STEM fields altogether.

Originally, when the idea of Physiological Understanding (PhUn) week was introduced to us by Dr. Camilla Wenceslau, a principal investigator in the field of physiology and a member of APS. We were unaware APS implemented programs as such which are directed towards community engagement. However, further research on the services entailed for the program, and its impact on the communities it represented, made us enthusiastic to be a part of an experience. We learned PhUn week is a national outreach initiative to help bring scientists to local schools, which aligns with our goal of enlightening younger underrepresented students in a crucial period of their lives. This opportunity to portray the beauty, strength, and integrity of science and physiology related career pathways for students underrepresented in STEM was a driving force for us, graduate students at the University of Toledo, to pursue PhUn week activities.


We identified a local public school with a large population of underrepresented minorities. Accordingly, we contacted the appropriate staff to set a date, but now we had to decide what activities would be done, who would help, and what kind of impact we hoped to leave on the students. We each decided to create stations and pursue activities that fit our creative and educational interest.


At the beginning of the class, we held a 10-minute introduction. For this, we discussed the goals of PhUn week, how APS influenced our professional lives and what opportunities a career in physiology could look like for students. Subsequently, a question and answer session regarding the students’ career aspiration and what they think is related to physiology started prior before performing the activities. For the activities, the students rotated through 4 stations that addressed a different theme of physiology. At the 1st station, titled Inside the Cell, students were given culture dishes, hardened clay, and clear slime (cytoplasm) and discussed the different part of the cell. Afterwards, the plate bottom and lids were parafilm closed and given as quasi-3-dimensional representation of the cell for students to keep. At the Vascular Function Station (station 2), students learned about the importance of circulatory vessel integrity and used tubes of varying diameters to represent what healthy and non-healthy blood flow looked like. At Dress like a Scientist (station 3), students dressed like what they thought a physiologist should look like and had mini-photo shoots. They were also given a little information on the path to becoming a physiologist and were able to ask additional questions. Finally, at the Heart Rate Race (station 4) students measured their heart rate before and after performing a sprint exercise via holding their wrist. The classes were concluded with distribution of PhUn week bags and a group photo.


Opportunities as such are not common in many places, and therefore, serve as potential catalyst for scientific inquiry amongst children. Although a single event, or person, or action may not completely change the course of a child, it could help orient them to new opportunities that they may not have considered. Underrepresented minority students in science are many times, not exposed to careers in science and technology and, if they are the presenter is often from an unrelatable background. Therefore, seeing African American graduate students can serve as a potential catalyst for the pursuit of careers in physiology and can more authentically portray the success and importance of representation as a means for inspiration.

Darren Mikael Gordon1, Jonnelle Edwards1, Abdul-Rizaq Hamoud2, Ahmed Abokor1, Camilla Ferreira Wenceslau1

1 Department of Physiology and Pharmacology, The University of Toledo College of Medicine & Life Sciences, Toledo, OH

2 Department of Neurosciences, The University of Toledo College of Medicine & Life Sciences, Toledo, OH

Darren is a 5th year MD/PhD student candidate, Jonnelle Edwards is a 3rd year PhD student, Abdul-Rizaq Hamoud and Ahmed Abokor are 2nd year PhD students at the University of Toledo College of Medicine and Life Sciences. Dr. Camilla Ferreira Wenceslau is an Assistant Professor at the University as well. All have an invested interest in outreach and believe programs like PhUn week can be paramount to forwarding the aims of progressing diversity in leadership and science.

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