A diverse workforce, particularly one engaged in research, has been shown to drive scientific discovery and innovation. Yet over the past 50 years, the U.S. has seen increased racial and ethnic disparities in higher education enrollment, as well as gaps in earnings, employment, and other related outcomes for communities of color. Recognizing this trend, Washington University’s Commission on Diversity and Inclusion 2017 report, recommended strong institutional commitment to advancing equity, diversity and inclusion at Washington University.
The International Center for Child Health and Development (ICHAD), located in the Brown School, is committed to diversity through its mission to reduce poverty and improve health outcomes in low-resource settings. Over the last three year it has been building its NIH training grant portfolio – with a distinct and intentional goal: To engage and support more students and early career investigators from diverse backgrounds in research.
The Researcher Resilience Training program, funded in 2018 by the National Institute of Mental Health, is designed to train investigators of African descent interested in child and adolescent behavioral health, and provide them with the necessary research skills to address the significant challenges that exist within resource-poor settings. Co-led by Fred Ssewamala, Sean Joe and Mary McKay, the first cohort of students traveled to Uganda to visit local schools and health clinics and had the opportunity to engage with local policymakers and the community.
“This program gives trainees practical skills and unique supports from mentors who have themselves faced adversity in their research careers,” notes co-director Ssewamala. “For those of us coming from underrepresented backgrounds, it is more than just learning research methods. It is how to be resilient and resourceful, particularly when working in low-resource settings.”
In 2020, ICHAD’s training programs moved online due to COVID-19. This coincided with the launch of two additional NIH-supported training programs coordinated out of ICHAD. The Global LEAD program was funded by the National Institute of Minority Health to train students and postdocs from underrepresented backgrounds interested in health disparities in a global context and is co-directed by Patricia Cavazos in the Department of Psychiatry and Ssewamala.
The second program, the CHILD-Global Research Fellowship is funded by NIH’s Fogarty International Center and will train 18 Ugandan researchers over the next four years committed to examining issues related to the intersection of HIV and mental health in low resource settings. This program is co-led by Ssewamala, Mary McKay and Noeline Nakasujja located at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda.
Despite being online, the programs were able to create a feeling of community and connectedness as together, students grappled with not only the isolating COVID-19 pandemic but also a summer that brought racial strife and tensions to the forefront. Special sessions were added to discuss race and racism as it applies to research, to coincide with more traditional trainings.
“I appreciate the investment in supporting scholars of color in conducting global research,” noted one fellow. “Coming from an [non-WashU] environment where senior researchers do not show much interest in empowering and mentoring upcoming scientists, I was glad to see a different attitude that is positive.”
To date, these three programs have trained 33 investigators from diverse backgrounds and early results are promising. Program alumni have published more than 60 manuscripts since starting the program and six have received funding to continue their research. “Mentoring is fundamental to the success of these programs” according to RRT co-Director Joe. “By building a community of underrepresented researchers through embedding trainees in our own labs and studies, we have seen tremendous results.”
The summer 2021 cohorts for all three programs have been selected and 22 new underrepresented researchers will join this broad research network. For more information please visit ichad.wustl.edu/capacity-building.