Fostering Scientific Curiosity and Encouraging BIPOC Students To Pursue Careers in Mental Health

July 31, 2022

One of the major challenges in health care today is addressing social determinants that can affect the quality of care a person receives. Central to improving that care is for patients to be able to see people who look like them—whether at the bench or the bedside.

That’s the central premise of the McLean Mental Health Research Summer Program (MMHRSP), a 10-week paid internship that brings Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) undergraduate students to McLean’s campus to gain valuable experience in neuroscience or clinical psychology research.

“The uniqueness of our program is that we’re in a psychiatric hospital, and so we focus solely on mental health research,” said Oluwarotimi Folorunso, PhD, a post-doctoral research fellow in McLean’s Translational Psychiatry Laboratory and director of the MMHRSP.

“There’s a need for people who look like members of the BIPOC community in those spaces doing the research, and on the clinical side as well.”

Several generous McLean donors recognized the importance of the effort, which is funded entirely through philanthropy, and eagerly stepped forward to support it. The initiative appealed to Mary and Bob Lentz for its focus on underrepresented populations.

“We loved it because it supports not just the fellows but the many people who will benefit from the research these young scientists go on to do,” said Mary.

With the launch of the initiative in 2021, seven students were selected as fellows and placed in research labs within the Jerry and Phyllis Rappaport Center of Excellence in Basic Neuroscience Research and the Center for Depression, Anxiety and Stress Research. Each fellow received a $6,000 stipend.

Young woman works in science lab

“We were so grateful that donors supported our vision to train and nurture the next generation of BIPOC scientists, and to prepare them to apply to and excel in either neuroscience or clinical psychology graduate programs or medical school,” added Folorunso.

“One thing we wanted to do was reflect the importance of early exposure to mental health careers and committed mentorship to their success.”

The fellows, who either are from Massachusetts or go to school in the state, receive hands-on training in research that could eventually lead to publication. They also attend workshops that help them communicate their science, develop their resumes, learn from graduate school program directors, receive an all-expense-paid trip to present their summer research at a national conference, and are paired for a year with BIPOC mentors external to McLean.

A 2017 study by the Society for Neuroscience found that in the 170 national neuroscience graduate programs, 18% of pre-doctoral students are minorities, and per program the students are 6% Black, 1% American Indian or Native American, 14% Hispanic, and 0% Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islanders.

“It’s so important for world-class research facilities like McLean to take leadership roles in promoting diversity and inclusion,” said donor Mac Dorris. “I’m thrilled to support this exciting program and would love to see it flourish and continue for years to come.”

The program won accolades from members of the initial class.

“As a minority in STEM, it is very easy to feel like the odd one out or that you don’t deserve to be in the position you are,” said Kianna Barrett, a student at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

“I was able to hear stories from professionals in my field that I could relate to and that gave me a sense of relief regarding my position in my career journey.”

Learn more about the McLean Mental Health Research Summer Program, including how to apply.

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