New Summer Research Program Welcomes Undergraduates of Color

September 13, 2021

“Racial and ethnic diversity in science is essential to delivering excellence and superior innovations,” said Stephanie Pinder-Amaker, PhD, McLean’s chief diversity, equity, and inclusion officer.

McLean President and Psychiatrist in Chief Scott L. Rauch, MD, Pinder-Amaker, and other members of McLean leadership have championed this concept and are working together to develop a variety of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives across the hospital. McLean’s new Mental Health Research Summer Program (MMHRSP), directed by Nigerian-born neuroscientist Oluwarotimi Folorunso, PhD, is one of the hospital’s newest efforts in this arena.

Folorunso would like to see more people who look like him have access to the training and support needed to embark on careers in research. Toward this goal, McLean leadership teamed up with Folorunso and a group of his colleagues to develop the new program for promising BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of color) college students, with funding from several generous donors.

Seven such students were selected as fellows and placed into McLean research labs within the Phyllis and Jerome Lyle Rappaport Center of Excellence in Basic Neuroscience Research and the Center for Depression, Anxiety and Stress Research (CDASR). Each fellow received a $6,000 stipend for the 10-week program.

The McLean Mental Health Research Summer Program (MMHRSP), however, is more than just an opportunity to gain research experience and committed mentorship. Through interactive workshops, guidance on effectively communicating research, and advice on applying to graduate school, MMHRSP exposes its fellows to resources and skills that are critical to the success of a budding scientist.

In addition, the MMHRSP is supporting each fellow to apply for and present their work at the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students. “One of our immediate goals is to get the students into good graduate programs where they can do top-notch research in an environment that allows them to flourish,” explained Folorunso. “Creating a scientific abstract and presenting at a national conference is experience that will make them more competitive graduate school applicants.”

Aspiring BIPOC Scientists Often Lack Support and Role Models

“At McLean, we’ve been exploring how to address what we call ‘leakage’ in the neuroscience pipeline for BIPOC students,” said Folorunso, who works as a research fellow in Dr. Darrick Balu’s Translational Research Laboratory.

That “leakage”—when BIPOC students leave the neuroscience field—is attributable to many factors, including late exposure to neuroscience research, which may increase imposter syndrome, a lack of committed mentors, as well as the number of culturally sensitive and competent non-BIPOC scientists around them, according to Folorunso.

“To fill this void, BIPOC scientists often take on multiple roles, including serving on diversity committees and acting as a spokesperson for underrepresented groups, which puts a strain on their primary focus, which is to conduct research.”

Researchers
MMHRSP Fellow Naomi Nommi, front, is supervised by Olga Ponomareva, MD, as Dr. Folorunso looks on

MMHRSP fellow Kianna Barrett, an undergraduate at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, said she’s grown accustomed to seeing few people of color in health care settings. “Whether going to a doctor’s office or to a science class, seeing another person of color gives me a huge sense of relief. I instantly feel more comfortable, heard, and welcomed,” she said. “I want to be a voice and advocate for others in my community. This program is allowing me to act on that goal.”

Donors Step in To Support the Program

The summer program was able to launch at this critical time thanks to the support of several generous donors, including Ken Rossano, a McLean honorary trustee and long-time supporter of young scientists, and Mary and Bob Lentz.

The Lentzes were looking for a way to respond to the many racial inequities laid bare by the pandemic. The new program appealed to their interest in mental health and their desire to support underrepresented populations. “We loved it because it supported not just the fellows, but the many people who will be impacted by the research these young scientists will go on to do,” said Mary.

Mac Dorris, also a long-time McLean supporter and founder of the annual Ride for Mental Health, chose to direct some of his philanthropy to this program. “It’s so important for world-class research facilities like McLean to take leadership roles in promoting diversity and inclusion,” said Dorris. “I’m thrilled to support this exciting program and would love to see it flourish and continue for years to come.”

Other McLean donors were also instrumental in bringing this initiative to fruition.

Fellows Gain Research Experience and Knowledge on How to Build Careers

This summer’s participants hail from a range of universities in the area. (To be eligible for the program, a student must attend a two- or four-year college in Massachusetts or be a state resident.) The students were matched to labs that reflect their interests, which range from post-traumatic stress disorder to depression to substance use disorder to autism.

Prior to the start of the program, the MMHRSP Committee reached out to all principal investigators (PIs) of the Rappaport Center of Excellence in Basic Neuroscience Research and the CDASR to gauge interest and availability to host a fellow.

Importantly, volunteering as a PI for this program involves not only hosting students in their labs, but also requires them to serve as active mentors, attend seminars and meetings, and work closely with students to help them prepare research presentations.

It was important to Folorunso and the committee that the students receive continuous mentorship from established BIPOC neuroscientists, so each fellow has been paired with a year-long BIPOC mentor from outside McLean. Finally, fellows will participate in ongoing K-12 neuroscience outreach through collaborations with McLean’s Brains Matter neuroscience outreach program and the Harvard Medical School Black Postdoctoral Association.

Increasing Diversity at McLean and Beyond

The MMHRSP will be as beneficial to McLean as it is to the program’s participants, explained Elena Chartoff, PhD, the program’s principal investigator and director of the Neurobiology of Motivated Behavior Laboratory. Her hope is that increasing the number of BIPOC researchers (and aspiring ones) on campus will be self-perpetuating.

“I imagine students and post-docs who are thinking of coming to McLean seeing people who look like them on campus. That sends the message that this is a welcoming place and an institution where they might find their professional home,” she explained.

Like the program’s supporters, Folorunso believes the impact of the program could eventually go far beyond McLean. “I would love to see these fellows pursue careers in neuroscience and then go on to inspire the next generation of BIPOC neuroscientists. I’d also like to see the success of our program inspire other institutions to follow suit.”

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