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By Ed Hayward | Chronicle Staff

Published: Oct. 30, 2014

Professor of Biology David Burgess will lead the development of the National Research Mentoring Network through a five-year, $19 million grant from the National Institutes of Health that is part of a sweeping initiative to diversify the ranks of biomedical researchers across the United States, the NIH announced last week.

The network, administered by Burgess at BC, will also draw on the expertise of faculty at the University of Wisconsin, University of Minnesota, the University of North Texas Health Sciences Center, and Morehouse Medical School in Atlanta, in addition to a far-reaching consortium of academic institutions, professional scientific societies and community-based organizations.

The National Research Mentoring Network is one of three initiatives within the NIH’s Enhancing Diversity of the NIH-Funded Workforce Program, unveiled by NIH Director Dr. Francis S. Collins. 

“For those of us who have taken on this problem for years, this initiative has the potential to help current and future generations of scientists who might not otherwise fulfill their career goals,” said Burgess, who is of Cherokee descent and a past president of the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science.

“This is a wonderful commitment by the National Institutes of Health that gives us the funding and the tools to address these disparities. As someone who has focused on these issues for 40 years, it is gratifying to participate in this initiative.”

Under Burgess’ leadership, the NRMN administrative center at Boston College will coordinate the nation-wide initiative as well as serve as the regional hub for programs serving the Northeast and Puerto Rico. The University of Wisconsin will coordinate mentor training for program participants. The University of North Texas Health Sciences Center will lead programs connecting mentors and mentees. The University of Minnesota will offer professional development programs to help mentees at various career stages across a wide range of biomedical disciplines. The Morehouse School of Medicine will coordinate the network’s programs at Historically Black Colleges and Universities. 

Recent studies, including those supported by the NIH and other government organizations, have confirmed striking disparities in degrees earned, research grant awards, job opportunities and career advancement for biomedical professionals based on race, ethnicity, socio-economic status, sexual orientation or disability.

The NIH, which annually awards approximately $26 billion in biomedical research funding, commissioned the 2011 study “Race, Ethnicity, and NIH Research Awards,” which found that scientists of color were less likely to receive NIH funding than their white counterparts, in spite of holding equivalent credentials and positions.

In 2011, the NIH established the Biomedical Research Workforce Working Group to further explore career disparities and develop strategies to boost the recruitment and career development of underrepresented individuals in biomedical research.

The network was developed to serve as a consortium of leading providers of evidence-based strategies for forming and maximizing mentoring relationships. In addition to the four lead universities, the initiative will draw on the expertise of more than 30 professional scientific societies, 20 historically black colleges and universities, Hispanic-serving institutions, American Indian tribal colleges, minority-serving organizations and NIH-funded centers.

At BC, Burgess and his staff will support the three cores within NRMN and coordinate interactions with two other programs funded under this initiative, the Coordination and Evaluation Center and the Building Infrastructure Leading to Diversity Initiative. Burgess will serve as liaison with the NIH’s National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities and the Common Fund and administer a pilot grants program and an initiative to expand the network program.

Burgess has served in an advisory capacity on underrepresented minorities in the sciences to the NIH, NSF and the President’s Council on Science and Technology, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science and received funding from NIH and NSF to address diversity in the sciences. He has also been awarded the E.E. Just Award by the American Society for Cell Biology for outstanding research by a minority scientist. He said the scope of the National Research Mentoring Network has the potential to help aspiring scientists realize careers in biomedical research.

“Part of this project is the retention of undergraduate students of color, who tend to disproportionately drop out of scientific disciplines in spite of being qualified,” said Burgess. “We want to encourage and nurture those undergraduates. Then we want to help them succeed throughout their graduate studies and, ultimately, become independent scientists with fair access to jobs, research funding and career advancement.”

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