Vanderbilt establishes the Linda Sealy Emerging Scholar Travel Award to honor mentor and DEI leader

By Felysha Jenkins and Vivian Gama

The new Linda Sealy Emerging Scholar Travel Award celebrates the scientific relationship between a mentor and trainee pair by providing them with $4,000 to attend a national conference in the trainee’s research field. The award, established with funds provided by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Gilliam Fellows Program, the School of Medicine Basic Sciences, and the Department of Cell and Developmental Biology, is accepting applications through July 1, 2024. Application requirements are listed below.

Linda Sealy

Named for Linda Sealy, associate professor emerita of molecular physiology and biophysics and former associate dean for diversity, equity, and inclusion, the award is intended to enhance the STEM talent pipeline by promoting a more inclusive environment that supports trainees from diverse backgrounds.

From 2017 until her retirement in 2020, Sealy was the Basic Sciences associate dean for DEI. In that role, she was a force for diversifying the faculty as well as the student body. Throughout her career, she mentored more than 65 students through their doctoral degrees at Vanderbilt and other institutions. In 2018, she was honored with the Lifetime Mentor Award of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. She was the inaugural recipient of the Bishop Joseph A. Johnson Jr. Distinguished Leadership Professor Award in 2016 for exemplary contributions to promoting diversity and inclusion at Vanderbilt. Sealy led an active research program for 26 years on the function of the three isoforms of the C/EBPβ transcription factor. Her work demonstrated that they play roles in Ras oncogene-induced senescence, the epithelial-to-mesenchymal transition, and the acquisition of the metastatic phenotype, among other things.

“Linda Sealy’s tireless efforts to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion have had a profound and lasting impact on our institution. Her mentorship and leadership have been instrumental in cultivating an environment that supports and empowers individuals from diverse backgrounds to thrive in STEM,” said Vivian Gama, associate dean for equity and inclusive mentoring and associate professor of cell and developmental biology. “The Linda Sealy Emerging Scholar Travel Award is a fitting tribute that will help continue her legacy of building a more inclusive scientific community.”

Travel Award Submission Requirements:

  • Trainee CV
  • Letter by the mentor detailing how they will support the trainee’s scientific network during the meeting and their commitment to execute the proposed plan
  • Description of scientific project and how attendance will benefit the trainee’s research and career goal(s)

Applications will be accepted through July 1, 2024. Following submission, there will be an in-person interview with the mentor and trainee by the selection committee. The selection committee is chaired by Vivian Gama, associate dean for equity and inclusive mentoring and associate professor of cell and developmental biology, and Ken Lau, professor of cell and developmental biology and associate professor of surgery.

Linda Sealy reflects on her career

What did your experience as associate dean for diversity, equity, and inclusion teach you?

My experience as associate dean for diversity, equity, and inclusion taught me to focus on building a coalition of the willing by reaching out to those who were ready to participate in creating a more inclusive and equitable community. I learned from a wise role model, Menah Pratt Clarke, VP for Strategic Affairs and Diversity at Virginia Tech, that an inclusive environment is built through conversation and dialogue, rather than mandatory DEI trainings.

Introducing mentorship education that emphasized cultural responsiveness turned out to be successful, I think, in expanding the coalition of the willing because it provided opportunities for dialogue and sharing. The conversations and activities in each of the workshops were particularly effective in promoting “cultural humility,” the ability to see yourself as a cultural being with a respectful curiosity about others’ cultural identities while also acknowledging your own preconceptions and biases.

As a scientist, I wanted to use data to measure the effectiveness of interventions—hence the graduate student culture and climate survey. While I always enjoyed the unwavering support of  the dean of Basics Sciences at the time, [Lawrence Marnett,] this caused quite a bit of alarm among senior leadership in the institution. Nonetheless, I still feel that evaluating progress (or lack of it) toward a more inclusive culture in the Basic Sciences community through data can change hearts and minds.

What was the proudest moment of your career?

The evening in 2018 when I received the Lifetime Mentor Award at the AAAS meeting was definitely a proud moment, especially because the Initiative for Maximizing Student Development students submitted the nomination.

However, that may have been very recently eclipsed as the proudest moment of my career when, on March 8, 2024, Jamal Bryant became the hundredth IMSD student to complete his Ph.D. Reaching that hundredth milestone was a moment to reflect very proudly on the impact of the IMSD program, which I led with my partner and colleague, Roger Chalkley, on creating a sizable community of diverse and talented scholars at Vanderbilt.

Our decision back in 2007 to admit students to the IMSD across the entire range of GRE scores ended up playing a significant role in the eventual elimination of the GRE requirement for admission among most biomedical Ph.D. programs across the country today. When our manuscript “The GRE Over the Entire Range of Scores Lacks Predictive Ability for PhD Outcomes in the Biomedical Sciences” was posted on bioRxiv in the summer of 2019, it received more than 1,000 tweets in just a few days and its abstract was downloaded more than 7,000 times in the first month. While there are still naysayers out there, if I told you the GRE scores of some of our early IMSD graduates who are having a significant impact on their fields of study today, you would be absolutely convinced that GRE scores do not matter.

What message would you like to give to those who come after you?

The tide has definitely turned on DEI activities largely due to a misunderstanding of their purpose. Going forward, I think it has become extremely important to expand messaging efforts that DEI is not about giving advantages to the unqualified. On the contrary, when individuals from diverse backgrounds and identities experience respect and a sense of belonging, they do their best work, and that is something everyone benefits from. Moreover, a supportive and inclusive work environment is key to recruiting the most talented individuals of every cultural background. Thus, the pursuit of excellence necessarily involves building an inclusive community. [It is important to] continue to provide opportunities for honest and transparent conversations (Conversations on Diversity and Inclusion is a great example of this).

Cultural change is slow, requiring exceptional patience and resilience. Meanwhile, underperformance fueled by anxiety (from stereotype threat, from being the “only”) is far too frequent. In my view, every mentor should have Albert Bandura’s four methods to increase self-efficacy on their cell phone for quick reference. While building an inclusive community is a shared responsibility among all community members, serving in a leadership role that gives you the opportunity to catalyze such change is a great honor.