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UAB program helps minority and disabled students excel as scientists

Each Roadmap Scholar works closely with a research mentor. Here, scholar Lillian Brady, right, meets with neurobiology associate professor Lynn Dobrunz. (Steve Wood, UAB News)

By Nancy Mann Jackson

UAB News 

Each Roadmap Scholar works closely with a research mentor. Here, scholar Lillian Brady, right, meets with neurobiology associate professor Lynn Dobrunz. (Steve Wood, UAB News)
Each Roadmap Scholar works closely with a research mentor. Here, scholar Lillian Brady, right, meets with neurobiology associate professor Lynn Dobrunz. (Steve Wood, UAB News)

Even though she possessed a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and a master’s in biotechnology, Lillian Brady felt that she didn’t fit into the booming field of neuroscience. “As an underrepresented student, it can be easy to get into the mind frame that you don’t belong,” says Brady, a graduate of Alcorn State University, a historically black university in southwest Mississippi.

But then the Jackson, Mississippi, native found a place where she fit in perfectly: UAB’s Neuroscience Roadmap Scholars program, which is designed to help engage and retain underrepresented graduate trainees—including ethnic minorities and students with disabilities—in the neuroscience workforce.

Brady, now a doctoral student in UAB’s Department of Neurobiology, calls the program a “confidence booster” that has provided both support and encouragement. “I’ve been exposed to scientists who look like me and who have had some of the same challenges I am facing now,” she says. “These scientists are thriving in their fields, so I have no doubt that I can be successful in whatever career path I choose.”

Strengthening the Pipeline

“Through our experience working with students, we realized the pipeline for diverse neuroscientists was leaky,” recalls Farah Lubin, Ph.D., associate professor of neurobiology. “We might start with many diverse, motivated students, but somehow, many of them don’t make it into successful careers.”

The problem isn’t talent or academic strength; rather, many students from diverse backgrounds or with disabilities may struggle with financial challenges, family needs, or a lack of confidence. Lubin and Lori McMahon, Ph.D., UAB Graduate School dean and UAB Comprehensive Neuroscience Center director, have seen such roadblocks dismantle the plans and goals of numerous students and coworkers.

To plug the pipeline’s holes, Lubin and McMahon developed Roadmap Scholars to emphasize mentoring, support networks, team-building experiences, and a community of peers to help guide more students to achieve neuroscience careers. Funded by a grant from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, the program launched in 2014. Today it includes 25 doctoral students.

The funding does not pay tuition or stipends; instead, it enhances and provides educational experiences to prepare students for further study and to encourage them to remain in neuroscience. And it works in tandem with the students’ graduate curriculum.

For example, every Roadmap Scholar matches with a “career coach” in addition to a primary research mentor. The coach is a faculty member not on the student’s thesis committee who is available to talk about nearly anything—scientific projects, publishing and presenting, conflict management, or life in general, Lubin says. In doing so, these coaches provide additional professional perspectives and serve as an additional layer of support.

For Leland Fleming, a Fort Worth, Texas, native and UAB Graduate Biomedical Sciences doctoral student, the program’s peer and faculty network has made his goal of becoming a neuroscientist more tangible. “With its guidance and inspiration, it has made a once seemingly impossible goal something that I feel more than capable of accomplishing,” he says.

Creating a Community

The support system kicks into gear even before the scholars’ first semester at the program’s summer NEURAL (National Enhancement of Underrepresented Academic Leaders) Conference, which draws neuroscience trainees from across the country. There, students can hone their networking and public speaking skills and interact with the field’s academic leaders. For instance, at the 2015 inaugural conference, leading neuroscientist Roger Nicoll, M.D., of the University of California San Francisco drew an emotional response from the audience when he spoke of succeeding despite his lifelong struggle with dyslexia.

For Fleming, key conference takeaways included insights on common challenges that minority students can face in graduate school. These might be “feelings of inadequacy or feelings that he or she is merely an impostor on the brink of being exposed at any given moment,” he explains. But he and other students also received “terrific advice on coping with these issues when they arise,” Fleming says.

The conference also helps to build strong bonds among students. Matthew Timberlake, a second-year graduate student who grew up in Fort Worth and Enterprise, Alabama, has enjoyed helping his colleagues to design and present lectures—even sharing his own research data with them. “I like the sense of community,” he says. “My colleagues and I—especially the upperclassmen—have an important role in discussions,” he says. “We help to ease some of the unknown for the underclassmen. In the same way, I also benefit from the upperclassmen’s advice and guidance.”

Rylie Hightower, an Albuquerque native who came to UAB after earning a nursing degree in New Mexico, is one of the newer students benefiting from those discussions. At a Roadmap spring retreat, Hightower sought advice from older students. Those interactions “will help me throughout my time at UAB and beyond,” she says.

The program has “made me feel at home away from home,” Hightower says. “But it also has helped me understand that a supportive community can greatly contribute to the way I think and perform as a student and as a scientist.”

The Road Ahead

Career planning is a key component of the program. Brady, who plans to obtain a postdoctoral position following her UAB training, found Roadmap’s “postdoctoral school” to be extremely valuable. She describes it as a weeklong crash course for senior graduate students covering “everything we need to know about postdoctoral positions. Not only were we given pointers on securing the right postdoc for our interest, but we also were exposed to postdocs in fields we might not have considered.”

Every student also learns about neuroscience-related job opportunities in business and industry. “Often, students are encouraged to build a career path focused on remaining in academia,” says Megan Rich, a Fairfield, Connecticut, native and UAB Graduate Biomedical Sciences student. “The program has been great about expressing other options after graduate school and that it is OK to think about them.”

By helping these students to feel empowered, capable, and supported, the Neuroscience Roadmap Scholars program will lay the groundwork for future progress in one of the fastest growing scientific fields, McMahon says. Lubin agrees, noting that diversity is crucial for continuing advancements: “Diverse groups can offer unique perspectives and unique ideas, which will push the field forward.”