The Importance of Mentoring in Achieving Greater Diversity in the Biomedical Workforce

May 13, 2013, 9:00 AM, Posted by

Growing up in a predominantly African American neighborhood in Philadelphia, high blood pressure, strokes, and heart attacks were common. When I got to medical school, I asked one of my professors why the African American community tended to have a higher prevalence of these medical conditions. He introduced me to biomedical science for the first time and challenged me to pursue that question on my own. I've continued to look for the answer to that provocative question ever since.

Similar to that early experience, mentorship has been a determining factor in my career trajectory. I might not have pursued a research career at all if it hadn't been for Harvard Medical School professor A. Clifford Barger who inspired me to ask and answer difficult research questions. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Harold Amos Program pushed me further with their emphasis on mentorship, which gave me a sense of community with the many scholars interested in the same research problems. It was my experience with a National Institutes of Health T32 training grant when I was starting out as an investigator that inspired me to give back to a younger set of minority researchers by becoming a K Award mentor and leading a T32 program at Morehouse School of Medicine.

I am now privileged to lead an institution with a mission that includes the training and nurturing of a diverse new generation of scientific leaders. The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), is working to implement a national-scale initiative to bring in mentors who will help foster the diversity we need. The NHLBI also is co-leading an ambitious NIH Common Fund effort to strengthen the recruitment and retention of diverse scientists in the NIH-funded biomedical, behavioral, clinical, and social sciences workforce. The NHLBI Office of Research Training and Minority Health, whose endeavors have included the creation of an e-mentoring initiative, continues to lead the way toward ensuring greater participation of underrepresented racial and ethnic populations in research and training programs.

If you look at the numbers, our biomedical workforce falls far short of reflecting the full diversity of our nation. While 12.6 percent of the U.S. population is African American and 16.3 percent is Hispanic, only 1.1 percent of NIH grantees are African American and only 3.5 percent are Hispanic. We need effective initiatives to turn this around. Mentoring provides an important legacy through leadership and investment in individuals. We need passion and faith, but we also need to be willing to provide the resources that will help diverse students excel. As the Nigerian proverb says, it takes a village...

Read a Q&A with Gary Gibbons on the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation website.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Human Capital Blog. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors.