Enhancing Diversity in Science: A Career In Science Policy

Feb. 14, 2018

Dr. Kenneth Gibbs is director of the Postdoctoral Research Associate (PRAT) Program and program director in the Division of Training, Workforce Development, and Diversity at NIH's National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS). He was previously a AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellow. His impressive career has been guided by the desire to change the culture of science to enhance opportunities for all—with a particular focus on people from historically underrepresented groups—as well as his philosophy of life encapsulated by a quote from his mother to "Never self-eliminate. Let them tell you 'no.' Don't close the door on yourself."

In this interview with Dr. Gibbs, we learn how he made the transition to science policy.

How did you become interested in biomedical workforce training, workforce development and diversity?

I grew up in North Carolina and my parents were the first people in my family to go to college, and my grandparents grew up as black people in the Jim Crow South—all of which shaped my worldview. My parents always told me to do well and reminded me that "to whom much is given much is required." In high school, I heard a speaker say, "If you're a medical doctor, you'll likely treat at most 10,000 patients in your lifetime. The guy who discovered penicillin has treated billions of people on every continent for the past 6 decades." This opened my eyes to the vast potential for research to have a positive impact on people's lives and drove my decision to pursue a career in science.

My interest in diversity has been a thread throughout my career, because in addition to being the right thing to do, I truly believe we'll only be able to advance as a society if we are able to harness everyone's contributions. I participated in the Meyerhoff Scholars Program and the NIGMS MARC program, which reinforced my interests in this area. I went into science because of what it can do for people. However, throughout my graduate training, I wasn't seeing models of science that jived with my motivations for pursuing a science career. I also saw that my colleagues from various backgrounds were having qualitatively different experiences in training. For example, I had three colleagues (all black women) who were great scientists with first-authored graduate school papers in PNAS, Science and Nature, that left science because of the hostile environments of graduate school. This is a loss for them, and importantly, a loss for science.  

I wanted to make a difference in the culture of science, and I saw policy as a way to do that. This led me to the AAAS Science & Technology Policy fellowship, where I partnered with Dr. Kimberly Griffin, an education researcher, on a project called STEM Ph.D. Careers. We brought some system-level thinking in understanding career decision-making of recent PhDs and postdocs, and how it differs across demographics. Specifically, we studied how factors of race, ethnicity and gender can influence these decisions. Our papers have been widely cited—one is among the top 25% most cited papers in PLoS One—which is gratifying since our work is having an impact in this field. I believe this work contributed to me getting the job that I have now.

How did you transition from the laboratory into your current position?

As a graduate student, I didn't know that science policy existed but was doing things that came naturally to me. For example, I held leadership positions in student groups that created programming to address the needs around inclusion and career development. I also served on my PhD program's admissions committee and The School of Medicine's policy committees, where I advocated on behalf of my peers. These experiences helped me cultivate leadership, teamwork, and communication skills—all of which are key for transitioning into policy. I of course, also made sure that my research continued at a high level because this is what opens doors for one as a credible scientist. This required me to develop good time management skills—something that's also important for moving into policy (or really, just moving through life).  

I applied for the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowship, which was a key developmental milestone. Part of what helped me obtain this fellowship was networking. Because I didn't have a background in education, I talked to people I knew in this field from my time at Stanford to create an essay for the application centered on reforming the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, more commonly known as "No Child Left Behind." Furthermore, when I applied, I talked to colleagues who had been fellows and asked them to review my application materials. I learned that it's very important to talk to people in the field you want to go into so you know how to present yourself in that field.

One other thing that might be helpful if you are transitioning into policy is to look at how AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellows are evaluated and how their experiences helped them develop and demonstrate their scientific and analytical skills, as well as their leadership, outreach and communication skills.

How did your scientific training help you in this transition?

Science training is great because you learn how to identify a problem, get the resources to test your ideas, collect data, draw conclusions and propose solutions. These are important skills no matter what you do or where you go. I often think of life like my qualifying exam, where I had to learn a lot about a topic I wasn't previously familiar with and present cogently on it, in a relatively short period of time. These skills—critical thinking and communication—were key in my transition to policy. Similarly, fluency with quantitative methods and making compelling visuals—which we do in science through the process of writing manuscripts—also helped me in my move into policy. As a scientist, you think about data intuitively so that is a very helpful skill to have in other fields as well.

What do you do on a daily basis in your current position?

I am program director in the Divisions of Training, Workforce Development, and Diversity and Genetics, and Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology at NIGMS, where I work on the extramural side of funding at the NIH. I manage grant portfolios, talk to faculty or students looking to get fellowships and grants, participate in budget decisions, and monitor the progress of their awards. I worked hand-in-hand with our division director to write the announcement for the new NIGMS T32 which was a great experience. I also direct the PRAT program, which is administered from NIGMS and supports postdocs who work in different labs across NIH. Participants in this cohort also receive structured mentoring and participate in professional development. I enjoy being able to work directly with trainees and influence the policy decisions around funding. In everything I do, I use my scientific background, and I enjoy being able to work in areas that I'm passionate about.  

What is one really exciting thing about your job?

I find it invigorating to have the ability to really make a difference in spaces that I think are important. For example, the T32 funding announcement and the changes it will bring will literally impact thousands of graduate students each year. I really enjoy working on cultivating a more diverse talent pool in science on a national scale. I've also enjoyed other opportunities that this job has allowed, like serving on the National Academies Committee on Revitalizing Graduate STEM Education for the 21st Century.

Working in a large bureaucratic organization can be challenging—there are political changes that then lead to policy changes that might be unexpected, and I have to learn how to navigate that aspect of the job. But I do enjoy the larger impact I am able to have in policy as compared to working at the university level.

What advice do you have for trainees who want to follow your career path?

  • Do your job well because credibility opens doors, and success follows success.
  • Network, network, network.
  • Ask for help, and go for it.

These three things will help you be successful. For more in-depth advice, you can read this article on planning your career in today's landscape or listen to a recent podcast for those interested in policy careers.

Where do you think the biomedical enterprise is heading and how can we improve it?

My personal view (not to be taken as the view of the NIGMS or the NIH) is that this is an exciting time to work in biomedical research, even though there are still a number of well-articulated challenges, like length of training, a competitive job market, and of course climates that don't support scientists from all backgrounds equally. It's important for people to make a plan and be intentional about the moves they are making. It's also critically important for trainees to know their values and make career decisions congruent with them. At the same time, we are on the cusp of making huge breakthroughs in understanding fundamental processes of nature, and using those to inform treatment of all sorts of real world problems like cancer and Alzheimer's. Having a career in science is tough, but there is a path and I want to make sure people know that. A practical tip for those starting out and seeking funding is to talk to program officers at NIH (like me), since a large part of our job is helping people navigate the process. NIGMS has recently started some social media feeds to help demystify some of what we do, so follow us at @NIGMSTraining and @NIGMSgenes.  

It has been my honor to interview Dr. Gibbs and I look forward to following his career path reach new heights in the future.

Author: Adriana Bankston, Ph.D.

Adriana Bankston, Ph.D.
Adriana Bankston is a Principal Legislative Analyst at the University of California Office of Federal Governmental Relations in Washington, D.C.