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UMMS researcher co-directs project to enhance diversity in biomedical sciences workforce

By Susan E.W. Spencer

UMass Medical School Communications

August 28, 2020
 
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Mary Munson, PhD

A UMass Medical School professor is co-directing a first-of-its-kind national program to enhance diversity in the academic biomedical workforce, funded by a $1.3 million, five-year grant from the National Institutes of Health to create skills development workshops, mentor training opportunities and institutional culture-change initiatives at universities.

Mary Munson, PhD, professor of biochemistry & molecular pharmacology, and Michael Boyce, PhD, associate professor at the Duke University School of Medicine, are co-directors working with the grant co-PIs at the American Society of Cell Biology, CEO Erika Shugart, PhD, and Director of Professional Development Ashanti Edwards, on a program known as ASCB’s Maximizing Opportunities for Scientific and Academic Independent Careers (MOSAIC) Program, or AMP for short.

Dr. Munson chairs ASCB’s Women in Cell Biology Committee and Dr. Boyce co-chairs ASCB’s Minority Affairs Committee.

The program aims to address barriers facing postdoctoral researchers from backgrounds historically underrepresented in science and health professions as they transition to faculty positions, Munson explained.

“Not all of them successfully make the transition to the faculty role,” she said. “They don’t get a faculty position, or they get a faculty position and aren’t set up for success.”

Some opt out of academia and go into industry, Munson said. Or they may go to less research-intensive universities, where they may do more teaching or working with the community. She said reasons for self-selecting out of a faculty role or how postdocs facing bias or different expectations respond can be intertwined and complicated.

That is why involving mentors is an important component. “It is not clear to me that mentors have always supported postdocs going forward to a research-intensive faculty position. If postdocs don’t get the support and training early on, they may be discouraged from realizing those ambitions,” Munson said.

Postdoctoral fellows who are recipients of NIH MOSAIC K99 grants, designed to facilitate transition by providing an additional year of training and support, will be matched to ASCB by the NIH. The new grant initiative’s goals are to identify these AMP Scholars’ strengths and develop a plan to enhance those strengths through professional development and networking; develop new skills through in-person and online training sessions; and expand and strengthen scholars’ support networks through cohort-based peer groups and mentoring.

Munson said that another component of the program brings leaders of research institutions where AMP Scholars work into the conversation, to explore institutional changes that could support researchers from diverse backgrounds.

Expanding postdoctoral researchers’ mentoring and peer networks, as well as exposing them to a wider network of universities, are also objectives of the program. The grant includes sponsoring an AMP Scholar who is about to go on the job market for a faculty position to visit another institution that might be of interest.

“Maybe it would be a little bit of matchmaking,” Munson said. “It’s kind of like a practice faculty interview. It’s also a chance for institutions to say, ‘Hey, this awesome person is coming up. Maybe we should have a look at them.’”

Munson has already been putting some of the project’s goals into practice at UMMS. She started a Diversity Action Committee in her department and is working with others in the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences to facilitate more mentoring and faculty training and to change the culture using lessons she’s learning from MOSAIC.

But, she said, “What’s really going to make this program successful is  that it’s not housed within one institution. It’s housed within organizations like ASCB, which makes it broader, both nationally and internationally.”

MOSAIC awards were also given to the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and the Association of American Medical Colleges, according to the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, which oversees the program.

The cohort of AMP Scholars will begin in the summer of 2021.