Exploring ASM’s DEI History: Inspiring Early-Career Scientists
In the intricate tapestry of scientific progress, the contributions of scientists from diverse backgrounds and experiences interweave to form a complete and accurate understanding of the world around us. However, the underrepresentation of scientists from diverse backgrounds has long produced holes in that tapestry. Early career microbiologists from historically excluded groups bring unique perspectives and insights that are essential for advancing the microbial sciences. Reflecting this, ASM has been at the helm of supporting budding scientists through various past and present programming and activities, such as the Robert D. Watkins Fellowship, the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minoritized Scientists (ABRCMS), the Future Leaders Mentorship Fellowship (FLMF) and more.
In this second installment of ASM’s article series focusing on the history of the organization's DEI efforts, we delve into the critical importance of fostering an inclusive environment that empowers and uplifts early-career microbiologists from historically excluded groups, highlighting how such education initiatives enrich the field and contribute to groundbreaking discoveries that benefit us all.
The Robert D. Watkins Fellowship
While ASM had undertaken various smaller-scale initiatives to address diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in education for several decades, the Society significantly expanded its commitment to these efforts in the 1980s through the Minority Predoctoral Fellowship Program (established 1980). This program supported the attendance of students from historically excluded groups at microbiology research programs each year. The fellowship helped position students to compete with those at top-level institutions, as they were given access to and trained on how to operate state-of-the-art laboratory equipment, while also gaining robust experience conducting scientific research.
In the 1990s, fresh insights brought new life to the fellowship, when Joel Oppenheim, Ph.D., who served on ASM’s Minority Education Committee starting in 1991, became heavily involved in the Society's education programming. At the time, Oppenheim—now a professor emeritus of microbiology at New York University (NYU) School of Medicine—was a faculty member in the Department of Microbiology at NYU with experience running microbiology research programs. Lending this expertise to his friend and colleague, Robert D. Watkins (1929-2022), who was the ASM Senior Advisor to the Executive Director for Minority and Professional Affairs, allowed the pair to make a concerted effort to bolster the Minority Predoctoral Fellowship Program that ASM had launched nearly a decade before. In 1995, Watkins asked Oppenheim to head the program, which was renamed the Robert D. Watkins Fellowship in 1996. Their collaboration led to the funding of 2 National Institutes of Health (NIH) grants for ASM to support these programs.
When speaking about the microbiology research programs, Oppenheim, who oversaw the fellowship for nearly 10 years, stated, “Those kinds of experiences really exposed students, especially students from Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and smaller universities that had limited facilities, to what life and science [research] could be like at a major university. It opened the students’ eyes to show them that they’re highly competitive—that they’re equally as competitive as the students from Harvard University or Yale University or other Ivy League schools. It showed them that they could compete on that level and be highly successful at it.”
Throughout the 35 years of the fellowship (1980-2015), 111 participating students conducted graduate research and presented at ASM’s annual meeting. Continuing this momentum, other leading institutions, like Harvard University; Vanderbilt University; University of Minnesota; University of California, Los Angeles and others, started to follow suit by launching research programs of their own.
ASM received national recognition for the Robert D. Watkins Fellowship in 2000, when President Bill Clinton awarded the Society the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring. Celebrating the Robert D. Watkins Fellowship for making STEM more welcoming and inclusive to a diverse group of scientists, ASM was the first professional society to receive such a distinction.
Oppenheim asserted that if education programs can unify across the country in the coming years, the impact could be much greater. “What I would really like to see is for this to be done on a national level, not just a societal level,” Oppenheim said. “There should be a consensus on how this should be done, there should be a commitment [at the federal level].”
The Robert D. Watkins Fellowship served as a major inspiration for ASM’s current programming and was one of several other early iterations of microbiology research programs, which each evolved to support greater numbers of students over time. For example, the Minority Predoctoral Fellowship Program supported 1 student each year; after it transitioned to become the Robert D. Watkins Fellowship, this number increased to 3 students per year. The ASM Research Capstone Program (2012-2020), the program’s third iteration, supported between 10-20 students per year.
Still, ASM sought to make research, education and mentorship opportunities accessible to even greater numbers of students. Following the closure of the ASM Research Capstone Program in 2020, the Society reinvigorated its investments in DEI programming. In 2018, ASM created a DEI Task Force to reinforce the Society’s commitment and dedication to DEI, and the release of the task force’s findings, 2 years later, positioned 2020 as a benchmark year for the Society’s DEI efforts. Using the successes and lessons from prior programming as a guide, ASM sought to build upon the foundation laid by so many dedicated volunteers and staff members and carry the torch of supporting early career microbiologists from historically excluded groups forward. In 2022, the Society launched the present-day Future Leaders Mentorship Fellowship, which provides opportunities for training and mentorship for hundreds of early career microbiologists and their mentees.
The Future Leaders Mentoring Fellowship (FLMF)
Underpinned by the importance of uplifting diverse voices in STEM, FLMF connects master’s and doctoral graduate microbiology students from historically underrepresented communities and provides mentorship from leaders with similar lived experiences and identities. Not only are students guided as they navigate their educational and career pathways, but mentors of the program are also equipped with tools and resources to better support mentees in professional development.
“What we are doing with the Future Leaders program is kind of a continuation of the Watkins Fellowship,” explained Irene Hulede, the Director of Education at ASM. Hulede joined ASM’s education department in 1994 and has decades of experience in educational programming, particularly efforts that focus on bolstering DEI across academia.
Hulede reflected on the important connection between STEM education and DEI, especially for early-career scientists. If a scientist does not feel welcome or included early on in their STEM journey, they may become discouraged and depart from their programs or the field of microbiology entirely. Programs like FLMF are essential in supporting future scientists (and their mentors) at the beginning of their careers, celebrating their unique perspectives and highlighting future leadership opportunities.
Samantha Avina, a Ph.D. candidate at The Rutgers School of Graduate Studies-Newark Campus with a particular interest in antifungal vaccine development, became an FLMF fellow in 2022. “When I walked in [to the first FLMF event], and I saw a room of people who looked like me and shared similar experiences to me and all had a similar mindset of the things that we want to tackle, it was really empowering,” Avina said. “Seeing that an academic society, like ASM, wants to advocate for you, and wants to make sure that the next generation of STEM is more diverse—it has a really big impact on how [people from historically underrepresented groups] experience academia.”
Eva Davis, a Ph.D. student passionate about biomedical science and cancer genetics research at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), also became a fellow for FLMF in 2022. Davis shared that she is grateful that one of her mentors encouraged her to apply to FLMF, which gave her the opportunity to connect with numerous microbiologists at ASM Microbe 2022. “Just being able to attend and go to [scientific sessions], that was definitely a great experience,” Davis reflected.
Though the program is currently in its infancy, it is growing rapidly—both in terms of applicants and mentors who are eager to inspire the next generation of microbiologists. The fellowship saw 100% retention from its first year to its second, with a significant increase in the number of fellows in the second cohort. To date, the program has welcomed hundreds of mentors and fellows from more than 35 countries.
ASM Travel Awards
ASM's travel awards also play a pivotal role in facilitating the participation of scientists from historically excluded groups at conferences like ASM Microbe. By offering financial support to attend the conference, these awards not only help break down barriers of entry, but they also open doors to invaluable networking and mentorship opportunities. Additionally, awardees gain a platform to showcase their own research through presentations, which contribute to the conference's diverse and enriching scientific discourse.
Travel awards for ASM’s annual meeting date back as early as the 1970s. More than 50 years later, travel awards continue providing scientists from historically excluded groups the opportunity to connect with a global network of microbiologists at ASM Microbe. David Parker received the Minority Travel Award to attend ASM Microbe 2022. "To be accepted or even invited [to ASM Microbe] is like an invitation to play in the Super Bowl, it feels like you are here presenting and communing with the best—not just in your state, not just in your country, but the best in the world are here to show the advancements in microbiology. To be part of that community is an amazing honor,” Parker said.
Odion Ikhimiukor was one of the recipients of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Award to attend ASM Microbe 2022. “ASM Microbe is a dream conference, and most of my colleagues always want to attend,” Ikhimiukor said. “You get to meet a lot of awesome people and the top scientists that are in your field. I was super excited when I got the travel award because, without it, it would be impossible to attend because of the expenses involved.”
The Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minoritized Scientists (ABRCMS)
As ASM’s flagship conference, ASM Microbe serves as an important meeting for early career scientists from underrepresented groups; but this is not the only place for students to convene and explore countless avenues in the microbial sciences. For more than 2 decades, ABRCMS (an NIH funded and ASM managed conference) has solidified its reputation as the premier gathering for community college students, undergraduates and post-baccalaureates from historically excluded groups in STEM. What began as a vital resource for students from historically underrepresented and excluded groups has grown into a dynamic platform encompassing graduate students, postdoctoral researchers, faculty members, program administrators and more.
“The secret about ABRCMS is that I felt challenged to create one of the largest STEM communities for underrepresented groups,” Hulede recalled. “Someone said [to me] that we could not bring together more than 700 [trainees from historically underrepresented groups], and I knew then that I wanted to build something bigger.” In 2022, when Hulede presented at the conference for the 20th in-person anniversary, she shared that at the first ASM-managed meeting in 2001, there were approximately 1,800 attendees, and in 2022, there were 5,500 attendees—over 3 times what it had been 10 years prior.
Plus, in the last 2 years, a virtual component of ABRCMS was introduced for high school students, which has already seen attendance double in the last year. It is estimated that in the last 20 years, more than 50,000 undergraduate STEM students have participated in ABRCMS, most of whom are from historically excluded groups.
Hulede describes ABRCMS as a “catalyst” for impacting scientists in the early stages of their careers, showcasing numerous avenues they could pursue in various scientific fields.
This is all about meeting attendees where they are and providing them with an experience and opportunity that they might not otherwise have. As ABRCMS continues to grow, Hulede said the conference will remain a hub of support and inspiration, with the mission of removing barriers to help attendees cultivate a future where they have the opportunity to serve as leaders in STEM.
What We Do Today Impacts Tomorrow
The effectiveness of programming for early career scientists from historically underrepresented and excluded backgrounds is ultimately gauged by its impact, both personally and professionally. As we chart a course for the future, it's crucial to recognize that our current actions in supporting emerging scientists will inevitably shape the future leaders of the microbial sciences.
As ASM looks ahead, recent and upcoming projects aim to support this growth. This includes the Maximizing Opportunities for Scientific and Academic Independent Careers (MOSAIC) program—an initiative, under the National Institutes of Health's MOSAIC program, that will support postdoctoral researchers from historically underrepresented groups in transitioning to independent faculty roles.
To navigate this and future programs successfully, ASM must take into account the invaluable lessons derived from both successes and challenges. This will mean actively engaging with and listening to the voices of scientists from historically excluded groups, as their insights and aspirations are fundamental to crafting inclusive and effective programs that drive meaningful change.
“For me, being someone from [a historically excluded group] myself, [I know] that it’s never going to be an easy journey, so you cannot give up, you have to strive and fight hard to do what you have to do to help the next generation,” Hulede emphasized. “Once you make your mark on someone, then they’re your spokesperson, and they will continue to spread that impact and contribution throughout the field.”
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