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Diversity Initiatives

The Vanderbilt MBTP, with strong support from the institution, is committed to improving the recruitment and participation of underrepresented groups in our programs. There are number of initiatives at the institutional level, but here we describe the specific initiatives of the MBTP. The term underrepresented minority (URM) is used here to represent students from groups that are specifically recognized as underrepresented in science.

Increasing the number of underrepresented trainees remains a high priority for the MBTP. A substantial effort on the part of the MBTP to improve our track record in this area has been ongoing since the current director took over the program. The MBTP, with support from the Center for Structural Biology, continues to aggressively and directly recruit incoming URM students with a primary focus on generating direct contacts with candidate minority trainees and faculty.

1. History and Achievements. Over the past 12 years, our institution and the MBTP have made coordinated and vigorous efforts to increase the recruitment of students from minority groups. The key point is that the MBTP has made real strides as reflected for example by 5 URM training grant-supported students defending Ph.D. theses in the past 5 years compared with none in the 5 years prior. There are also many more URM students in our program. The MBTP community currently includes six African-American (Allison, Arnette, Copeland, Law, Starbird, Vann), four Hispanic (Combs, Duran, Rodriguez, Tafoya), one Native American (Archuletta) and one visually impaired student (Hirst). Thus, 12 of the 75 (16%) current MBTP trainees are URM students.
Our Program Director Walter Chazin strongly believes that success in URM recruitment requires a strong personal commitment. He provides leadership to our program, not only by encouraging the Training Faculty to participate but by his own direct action. To this end, in the past 10 years he has mentored 5 undergraduate URM summer interns and two URM Bridges to the Ph.D. students. In addition, 2 URM Ph.D. students (D.I. Pretto, C.K. Williams) and 1 URM M.Sc. student (I. Alers-Rivera) from his laboratory successfully defended their theses in the past 3 years. During this time he also mentored a talented URM postdoc (S.A. Damo) who currently holds a faculty position at Fisk University.

2. Recruiting at National Meetings and Conferences. Attendance at national meetings and conferences, including the annual SACNAS and ABRCMS meetings, is an important aspect of our URM recruitment plan. Our Program Director Walter Chazin has committed to attend at least one of these meetings each year. Very critical assistance in these efforts is provided by Sandra Ford in the Chemistry Department, Michelle Grundy in the BRET Office, and Lindsay Meyers, who is the administrator of the QCB and CPB programs in the BRET Office. Sandra, Michelle and Lindsay attend the SACNAS and ABRCMS meetings each year along with 3-4 other staff members, providing all manner of assistance to maximize the effectiveness of our efforts. Lindsay in particular serves as an excellent representative of Molecular Biophysics due to her key role in student recruitment to the QCB, since this program is a major source of our trainees. The Biophysical Society remains very active in pushing the URM agenda through a variety of programs, and our Program Director Walter Chazin and other faculty preceptors participate in URM recruiting opportunities at the annual meeting. This includes a display and meetings with prospective undergraduate students at the annual undergraduate/postdoc Recruiting Fair. Finally, we note that the BRET office pays expenses for URM graduate students to attend SACNAS and ABRCMS, and the MBTP has had a number of trainees participate over the years to aid in our recruiting efforts.

3. Annual Open House for Prospective Graduate Students. Our Recruitment Committee, which is now primarily dedicated to URM recruitment, has had great success in the past seven years, in large part through the efforts of Jens Meiler, who chaired the committee until July 2011. The group meets on a monthly basis and makes revisions to the website and our brochure, and develops strategies to increase the exposure of our program to first year students. In addition, this group initiated a new aspect of URM recruitment: the annual Undergraduate Open House, which focuses on students from URM colleges and universities. The Open House includes short talks from faculty, a poster session where graduate students present their research, tours of laboratories and research facilities, and oral presentations by graduate students about their experiences in graduate school. The Open House serves to: i) make potential graduate student applicants aware of the disciplines of Molecular Biophysics; ii) describe opportunities for graduate study in Molecular Biophysics at Vanderbilt; iii) reach underrepresented minority and economically disadvantaged students; iv) give current trainees experience in promoting their research and the discipline Molecular Biophysics. The event has the added benefit of building productive recruiting relationships with key science faculty advisors at undergraduate institutions in the region. It is important to emphasize that the primary purpose of the Open House is to expose participants to the possibilities of a career in science, with Molecular Biophysics providing relevant context. This effort contributes to the breadth and diversity of students who apply to Vanderbilt and thus benefits the MBTP. The events are organized to allow interaction of potential graduate students and their advisors with our Training Faculty and trainees.

Letters are sent to ~200 colleges, a significant number of which have large URM populations, inviting them to send faculty and students to the Open House. To motivate their participation, the CSB provides funds to cover the costs of travel expenses and meals. The event has been a major success, significantly oversubscribed such that not all of the interested groups can be accommodated. In the past several years, the Open House has attracted participants from 23 different Historically Black Colleges and Universities, including Alcorn State University, Clark Atlanta University, Elizabeth City State University, Fisk University, Grambling State University, Jackson State University, Knoxville College, Lane College, Lincoln University, Meharry Medical College, Miles College, Morehouse College, Morgan State University, Oakwood University, Philander Smith College, Rust College, Savannah State University, Southern University A&M-Baton Rouge, Spelman College, Talladega College, Tennessee State University, University of Maryland-Eastern Shore, and Winston-Salem State University. In conjunction with the annual advertisements and mailings, the open house has increased the visibility of the MBTP and all graduate programs at Vanderbilt among prospective students, many of which are from smaller institutions with limited exposure to biomedical research.

4. Building Pipelines – Direct Interactions by Faculty. Specific pipelines have been established to institutions serving large populations of URM students, since this has proven to be an excellent means to recruit minority students. MBTP training faculty have worked specifically with University of Puerto Rico- Mayaguez (Chazin), Berea College (Meiler), Florida A&M (Beth), and Barry University (Beth). A second approach involves contacts between MBTP and specific URM faculty and research collaborations. Examples include Program Director Chazin and Professor Belinda Pastrana from the Department of Chemistry at University of Puerto Rico- Mayaguez, and Jens Meiler and Mark Cunningham from Berea College. The MBTP also strongly encourages the Training Faculty to participate in recruiting by giving lectures to at institutions with large populations of URM students, with supplementary support from the Chemistry Department, the IMSD program, and the BRET Office.

5. Diversity Student Retention. Once affiliated with this training program, the MTBP provides trainees many levels of mentoring and support. This includes the availability of the Program Director as a second mentor and participation of MBTP faculty on the student’s advisory committee. In addition to a strong focus on mentoring to aid with student retention, we work closely with students to help them successfully complete the program. For example, the MBTP director and faculty have ensured that our visually impaired student has received reasonable accommodations for her research and program activities. These accommodations depend highly on the individual’s needs and expectations. We have the full support of the Vanderbilt University Office of Equal Opportunity, Affirmative Action, and Disability Services (EAD), which allows us to accommodate any special needs of our students. Overall, we have made extensive efforts in the area of MBTP student retention. We are please to note that none of the 19 URM students in the MBTP in the past 10 years have withdrawn from the program without a degree: 5 completed a Ph.D., 2 an M.Sc., and 12 remain in training. Of those that have completed graduate training all are pursuing careers in science.

6. Commitment to students with disabilities. Vanderbilt University is committed to the principles of equal opportunity and affirmative action. Vanderbilt welcomes applications from individuals with physical disabilities. Vanderbilt provides accommodations for such students via the Equal Opportunity, Affirmative Action and Disability Services (EAD) department. The EAD is responsible for coordinating disability support services and monitoring the accessibility of programs, activities, and buildings for the Vanderbilt University and Medical Center communities, consistent with the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. The Disability Services Program staff assists departments with providing accommodations for students, faculty, and staff with disabilities; ensures that Vanderbilt programs and events are accessible to the Vanderbilt community and visitors; monitors the accessibility of the university and medical center buildings; investigates disability discrimination complaints; and provides training on disability related issues. Students needing disability-related assistance can contact the EAD at:


Initiative for Maximizing Student Diversity (IMSD)