Engaging Diverse Trainees in Undergraduate Research

Oct. 2, 2019

The Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students (ABRCMS) is one of the largest expositions of URM student research. ABRCMS Online offers webinars on working with URM research students for faculty and career scientists. Dr. Amanda Marie James is a featured speaker in a webinar entitled, “Engaging Diverse Student Populations in Undergraduate Research”.

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There are many benefits to mentored research experiences for students, like enhanced science identity, sense of belonging and self-efficacy, research productivity and higher career satisfaction. It is important to ensure that these benefits extend equally to everyone. With an emphasis on diversifying the scientific workforce, it is imperative to define and implement effective methods to engage diverse trainees in research careers.

Headshot of Dr. Amanda Marie James
Headshot of Dr. Amanda Marie James
Dr. Amanda Marie James is the Chief Diversity Officer and Assistant Dean of Diversity, Inclusion, and Community Engagement at the James T. Laney School of Graduate Studies at Emory University. Dr. James is charged with creating and strengthening an inclusive, respectful and intellectually challenging environment for all research trainees. Dr. James explains her approach to working with diverse trainees and her advice for faculty engaged with diverse trainees in research programs. 

How has your personal and scientific experience helped shape the way you approach diversity and inclusion?

This is a passionate subject for me. I did my undergraduate degree at a Historically Black College and my graduate studies at a predominantly white institution (PWI), followed by postdoctoral studies at a PWI and had an experience at a small liberal arts college. From these experiences, I’ve seen the best way to move about in those worlds. My familiarity with the journey has been priceless to help facilitate the acclimation of diverse trainees and their navigation of a large university and global city. 

The main focus of my work is providing equity through opportunities for our scholars and faculty so they can fully engage in their work and begin self-discovery to achieve both personal and professional growth. Taking responsibility for inclusive outreach and ensuring environments where all can do their best work is essential to achieving the educational benefits of diversity. Education is transformative - and to quote, Marian Wright Edelman: “Education is for improving the lives of others and for leaving your community and the world better than you found it.”

What are some common challenges faced by diverse undergraduate students when pursuing research experiences?

The biggest issue that I’ve found among our diverse scholars is finding the opportunities. You don't know how to navigate the world, and your progression in the sciences is largely based on acquiring experiences along the way. Diverse trainees are sometimes reluctant to explore things if they don’t see themselves in that area. That’s why it is important for research experiences to be familiar with the needs of diverse trainees.

How do you communicate with principal investigators (PIs) about working with diverse students?

This can be one of the most difficult parts about coordinating research experiences. It’s important to note that trainees are a blank canvas. Diverse trainees can be molded into the type of scientists that you want them to be, but it is going to take some patience, intentional mentoring and understanding of their perspective. 
With faculty, you can teach them best practices, however I find it most effective to appeal to their ego and sense of accomplishment. These diverse trainees really want to be here and this is there chance to work with some of the best and brightest scientific minds. Most faculty love what they do, and working with a prospective bright diverse trainee is very appealing to them.

How did your institution begin developing programs to promote undergraduate research for diverse students?

With our programs for diverse scholars, we were intentional about how we rolled out the program and who we recruited to be research mentors. It was important that individuals worked with diverse trainees in the past couple of years. This sets a precedent of success working with diverse trainees that can be used as a template for additional faculty to follow. Providing a model for effective engagement of diverse trainees is just as important as recruiting them into your program.
Another thing that I’ve done in designing a research program for diverse trainees is use “reverse engineering”. I determined what factors the current graduate students and faculty wanted incoming scholars to have and designed a program that fit those needs. This way, we were able to design a tailored experience that was going to give the scholars the tools they need to be successful.

Beyond the obvious trends, what do you think will be the next big change in research experiences for diverse undergraduates?

As we begin to roll out more programs focused on diverse trainees, transdisciplinary studies will be more obvious for undergraduates. While this focus has been more prominent at the graduate and professional studies levels, it is not as obvious at the undergraduate level. This will require more collaborative approaches to supporting the needs of diverse trainees and will likely involve support at every level of the program. I do believe that the largest wave of programs of this nature will be from the smaller liberal arts and research active institutions, rather than the research intensive institutions. 

Author: Christopher Skipwith, Ph.D.

Christopher Skipwith, Ph.D.
Dr. Christopher Skipwith is an education specialist for ASM, responsible for coordinating education and training for the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students (ABRCMS).