Category Archives: Professional Development

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.
Diary of an Adventure Junkie: Part Trois…Try Something That Frightens You…It Could Turn Out to be PhUn

Are you a kid person? I am a self-proclaimed kid person, but I haven’t always felt that way. Kids are amazing sponges…seeking knowledge, attention and guidance, but they are also loud, challenging, sometimes germy, balls of energy.

I started out being a non-kid person when I was a kid myself. I primarily surrounded myself with adults, not always by choice, but certainly a circumstantial hazard of being an only child who moved frequently (13 times in 11 years). While I was encouraged to invite friends over and did, I preferred one-on-one time to massive playground free-for-alls. After settling in one place, and becoming a sullen teenager, kids weren’t really an issue, as I lacked siblings and fervently avoided friends’ sticky-handed brothers and sisters who insisted on following us around. By college it was official; I was absolutely not having any kids of my own. I barreled down my educational path determined to achieve great feats by extremely young milestones. So far, so good…

Do you remember the game of life…roll the dice, move your car, and then suddenly you are going to the chapel and your peg (pink in my case) is joined by another peg (blue in this story) and then more pegs…Eek! Now is the time to swerve to the side of the road and reevaluate where I went off course, or did I?

Let’s do a quick self-assessment: 

PhD earned –            

Found a nice boy and visited the chapel –            

Postdoc acquired –           

New pink peg in the backseat –              

WHAT?!?!   Where did the path diverge? At what point along the way did miniature pink pegs enter the picture? Where did my comfort zone go?


Okay deep breaths…

I can do this. I like adventures.  I can do this!



“I can do this” became my daily mantra and guess what…I discovered that I could do this. Not only could I do it, against all odds, I liked it. I was a kid person, well at least a kid person where my kid was concerned.

I still had reservations about other children. After all, they weren’t mine. I tolerated them, went to playdates, talked about “mom things” with acquaintances, but I didn’t really understand. I marveled at mothers who had more than one child, questioned the sanity of those who regularly hosted sleepovers, and stood in awe of preschool teachers who welcomed our offspring into their classrooms every day.

And then one day it happened…

A trusted colleague and friend suggested that we should participate in PhUn week. What is that I asked? I hadn’t even heard of PhUn week, much less knew what it entailed. When I discovered that I could design an activity to teach students physiology I signed up immediately because creating a new physiology demonstration was, after all, fun and exciting. And who wouldn’t love PHYSIOLOGY for kids?!?!


The day arrived and although I had prepared meticulously for my portion of the event, nervousness overtook me. Suddenly it was my turn to speak and the 50 pairs of fifth-grade eyes staring at me seemed to bore into my brain asking me, “Do you like teaching us? What are we going to do? What if we all decide not to raise our hands?” I drew in one more deep breath…


“Who knows how oxygen travels through your body?”


Several hands shot into the air and I knew I was going to be okay. My first participation in PhUn week was a huge success. The students enjoyed it, learned a lot about oxygen transport, we shared our day with colleagues during the PhUn week poster session at EB and published our poster in the LifeSciTRC.

I was hooked! I began planning the next PhUn week activity just a few, short months after my first event.  This time we would include elementary students and preschoolers. I decided to invite 60 fourth grade students to the medical school for a full day of events covering multiple organ systems and branching into other disciplines such as art.  An event at my daughter’s preschool was also on the agenda, teaching 3 and 4-year-olds to listen to heartbeats.  But wait…I don’t like kids…at least I didn’t like them…hmmmm, maybe they were growing on me.

With each new event, it became clearer that I was becoming a kid person and kids were now well within my comfort zone. I no longer felt annoyed with all of the questions; I welcomed the opportunity to share science and relished each hug from appreciative students.  I began hanging crayon-covered thank you cards up in my office, next to research awards and physiology textbooks.  I smiled each time a child stopped me in the hall to tell me about a “more often” food choice they had made instead of a “less often” food choice (one of our lessons included guidance on choosing fruits and vegetables and other healthy choices more often than candy, chips, and coke). I soon found myself looking for outreach opportunities outside of PhUn week and volunteering to teach others about organizing and carrying out community involvement events.  I beamed with pride when I realized that 2017 was my seventh year to participate in PhUn week. Kids no longer frightened me; in fact they excited me, particularly when I shared science with them. I had truly become a kid person.

In September, I asked my daughter, now a third grader (NRTP), if she wanted me to come to her classroom again and lead a PhUn week activity.

“Of course,” she said without hesitation. The conversation that followed went something like this…


Me: “What system should we do this year?  I realize that you are probably tired of the cardiovascular system.” (Please note that this is the primary system in which I trained and of course my favorite, hence the subjugation of my daughter to it year after year.)


NRTP: “Poop!”


Me: “Excuse me, poop is not a system.”


NRTP: “Poop!”


Me: “You want to study the GI system?”


NRTP: “Yes, as long as we make poop!”


Oh no! What had I gotten myself into? Digestion, stomach acid, liver enzymes, bile, and of course, poop…no thank you! Have I mentioned that the GI system is my least favorite? Here comes another adventure far outside the comfort zone. Following many hours of plotting and planning, diligent searching in the LifeSciTRC, and a couple of phone calls to a colleague (big sigh), it was settled, a plan emerged and GI physiology was on the horizon. I would lead a three-part session complete with an experiment, a video and a demonstration. We would even make “poop;” well, digested cracker, but it was close enough.


The day arrived and first PhUn week jitters resurfaced. I didn’t know this classroom, these children, or this system, but I stood determinedly in front of the room. I was pleasantly surprised at the students’ description of a scientist, intrigued by their questions, and excited to share physiology with them. The GI system was suddenly thrown into an entirely different light. Once again kids demonstrated to me that life is better when shared with them.  How else could my least favorite physiological system suddenly seem so amazing?


As I reflect on engagement in outreach opportunities throughout my career, I appreciate that outreach not only opened my eyes to personal change, but also professional paths. After carving a few notches in my PhUn week belt, I was named outreach coordinator for the medical school where I was faculty, given an operational budget for my activities and asked to serve as founding director of a health careers camp for inner city kids.  Professionally, becoming a kid person partially shaped my career and led to new forms of career development.  Teaching science to elementary age students encouraged me to rethink my examples and explanations in the medical physiology classroom.  It also spurred me to engage the students through more media and hands-on activities, ultimately leading to greater student success with understanding the most challenging physiological concepts.


So, what does it all mean?

  • Change is inevitable.
  • Change can be life-altering, but even when it isn’t, it’s a learning experience.
  • Any change can be an adventure if you are willing and open to the possibilities.
  • Change can start as personal and end as professional and vice versa.
  • In many cases the teacher is actually the student.
  • Sometimes the unwanted, or seemingly unwanted, adventures are the greatest.


So, I challenge you…go on an adventure, step outside your comfort zone and choose the divergent path because you never know where it might lead.

  Jessica C Taylor, PhD is the Senior Manager for Higher Education Programs at the American Physiological Society. She is a former professional, graduate and undergraduate classroom educator. Jessica participates in many forms of outreach including PhUn week and outreach writing through the I Spy Physiology blog. She is also the proud parent of an aspiring astrophysicist veterinarian pink peg with whom she dances in the living room, climbs playground equipment, and of course talks science.  She credits her pink peg, her faculty mentor and closest physiology colleagues with showing her the benefits of being a kid person.