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Building on BUILD: What’s on the Horizon for the Diversity Program Consortium?

February 13, 2018

In a previous blog, "Tomorrow’s Scientists, Today," I wrote about the NIH-funded Diversity Program Consortium (DPC). As I described therein, the DPC is a novel NIH investment using the scientific method to develop evidence-based strategies that enhance scientific workforce diversity, with a particular focus on new interventions to address sociocultural impediments and creative approaches to mentoring that enhance retention and career advancement. This three-pronged initiative consists of Building Infrastructure Leading to Diversity (BUILD), the National Research Mentoring Network (NRMN), and the Coordination and Evaluation Center (CEC).

The DPC has two overarching research questions: What are effective strategies for recruiting and retaining a diverse scientific workforce, including scientists from underserved backgrounds, and fostering their career advancement? Secondly, once those evidence-based strategies have been identified, how can they be scaled for broad dissemination across our nation?

To answer the first question, the DPC is specifically designed to assess the impact of interventions at three levels: students, faculty, and institutions. As a cardiologist engaged in research for more than 30 years, I fully resonate with the DPC strategy. It is analogous to a well-designed clinical trial that employs intervention and control groups to test the efficacy of those interventions on predefined outcome measures shared across the consortium. These measures are called the DPC Hallmarks of Success.

Based on a range of distinct theoretical constructs discussed in more detail below and in the papers themselves, BUILD sites have deployed interventions that not only test the efficacy of outcome measures, but may also provide insights into "mechanisms" underlying success. For example, do interventions that affect the Hallmarks of Success concurrently improve science identity, enhance resilience and persistence, ameliorate the effects of stereotype threat, or facilitate institutional culture change? How do certain variables contribute to Hallmarks of Success? Among these potential contributors are student stipend support, participation in hands-on research, access to cutting-edge curricula, and high-quality mentoring.

I now have substantial progress to report as this large multi-institution experiment is well under way. The open-access, peer-reviewed journal BMC Proceedings recently issued a special supplement dedicated entirely to the DPC, "The Diversity Program Consortium: Innovating Educational Practice and Evaluation Along the Biomedical Research Pathways." The supplement provides a helpful guide to the entire program by framing the DPC as a "national learning collaborative." On the immediate horizon for the DPC is the issue of sustainability for the future. The supplement nicely articulates DPC interventions in several distinct categories, based on the theoretical framework and innovative big ideas being tested.

  1. Creating an institutional climate for diversity. Implementation of this approach takes the form of educating faculty about marginalization and sociocultural factors like microaggressions as well as addressing elements of campus climates that discourage students from underrepresented backgrounds. Ongoing BUILD interventions in this domain evaluate the role of critical race theory (California State University Northridge); stereotype threat (San Francisco State University); and effective mentoring practices (NRMN).
  2. Integrated science identities. Building participants’ identities as aspiring scientists and researchers is a theme that spans the entire DPC and is a distinct outcome measure that will be evaluated by the CEC across BUILD institutions. The ASCEND program at Morgan State University (MSU) is testing a specific approach to development of students’ science identity within an HBCU context. This approach emphasizes student ownership in producing knowledge by engaging students to develop their own research studies early in their freshman or sophomore years, under guidance from mentors. ASCEND is also playing an important role in cultivating a research culture by increasing the number of MSU faculty who are knowledgeable about NIH (and similar) research grant processes.
  3. Culturally responsive practices. These approaches involve teaching practices that embrace the whole student in the learning process and provide insights into how college educators can create classrooms in which diversity is valued. Examples include The University of Texas, El Paso’s asset-based approach that encourages students to recognize their strengths; California State University Long Beach’s BUILD program where students are enabled to recognize resilience, cultural strengths, and develop growth mindsets; and NRMN’s culturally aware mentor training.
  4. Diversity innovations in science. These strategies focus on culturally responsive approaches, recognizing that new knowledge can result from research on a topic that is of particular relevance to a student. Interventions in this domain involve novel curricula, new research questions that address health issues affecting specific groups, new research methodologies for research with marginalized populations, or new knowledge resulting from interdisciplinary collaborations. One example is California State University Long Beach, which employs multidisciplinary approaches to addressing major health challenges through curricula and research community involvement.
  5. Partnerships with diverse communities. Although creating partnerships is at the core of the DPC’s intent, a number of BUILD interventions are framed specifically as "inclusive science" that requires engagement of communities and families. Examples include Portland State University’s BUILD EXITO program that specifically involves students and institutions located throughout the Pacific Rim and includes indigenous and underserved communities and the ReBUILDetroit consortium that has developed new curricula for cross-institutional teaching in an urban setting moving toward economic recovery. In addition, the Biomedical Learning and Student Training (BLaST) effort at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks is engaging students from rural areas with a culturally relevant approach that integrates human, animal, and environmental health. This is an interesting model that may be more broadly adapted to recruit and retain rural students, especially those from backgrounds underrepresented in STEM fields. An important type of partnership that is underemphasized in the DPC, but nonetheless requires greater focus, involves collaborations with other sectors engaged in biomedical research. These include the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries, along with technology companies that have recently engaged in health-related research and technologies vital for the translation of new knowledge from basic research into strategies for improving our nation’s health.
  6. Scalability and suitability. One example that directly addresses scalability and suitability is STEM BUILD at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC). This BUILD research study is using a randomized controlled methodology with the ultimate goal of incorporating successful measures into the traditional format of academic research. The BUILD Training Program (BTP) being tested integrates the many aspects of research into a series of training and mentoring experiences that build and escalate over a 4-year period. BTP is designed to provide trainees with time to build their skills, competencies, and confidence while fostering community, scientific identity, and resilience. Freshman or transfer students are recruited from a larger pool of "Tier-2 students," defined as those undergraduates who are at risk of dropping out from STEM majors due to individual factors (e.g., GPAs of 3.0 to 3.4), whose situation is further challenged by institutional hurdles such as limited internship opportunities, mentorships, and research positions for which top STEM students are usually favored. These students are randomly assigned to one of three groups: i) significant scholarship and programmatic support and STEM Living and Learning Community (LLC) campus housing; ii) guaranteed STEM LLC campus housing community with programmatic but no monetary support; or iii) control or comparison group provided monetary incentives for survey completion.

An important goal of the DPC, underscored by its NRMN component, is addressing research questions including what are the measurable impacts of specific strategies such as mentor training, mentor-mentee networks, and coaching to enhance research-grant funding success? The cornerstone of the DPC, the CEC — analogous to a center for data management and coordination in clinical trial design — has established systems for longitudinal tracking and multidimensional comparative analyses. The CEC is poised to provide definitive answers to the aforementioned questions regarding efficacy of interventions in different institutional type and cultures, comparisons of outcomes in BUILD using non-BUILD supported institutions as comparators, and impact of mentor/mentee practices.

In summary, the DPC experiment, as illustrated in the BMC collection of papers, has many themes that are worth special consideration for those interested in self-analysis at their own institutions. Recurring topics of interest include innovations, such as in curricula, team-science approaches and culturally responsive approaches; institutional climates of inclusion, including powerful effectors such as stereotype threat; and partnerships, not limited to institutional links but also to communities.

Collaboration and evaluation are solid undercurrents to the entire enterprise, executed through the CEC which is actively analyzing data coming in from individual institutions – and importantly, making comparisons between BUILD institutions and non-DPC institutions. It’s probably fair to say that the DPC is a good example of a whole that is greater than its individual parts. I look forward to checking in next year to report what we’ve learned and how the DPC horizon is evolving towards sustainability across the entire biomedical ecosystem!