UW News

January 6, 2020

Supporting diversity, inclusion in neuroscience: A conversation about the BRAINS Program with UW psychology professor Sheri Mizumori

UW News

The 2019 cohort for the BRAINS program, or Broadening the Representations of Academic Investigators in NeuroScience. Program evaluator Cara Margherio is in the back row, two people to the left of the post. Co-director Claire Horner-Devine is at the far right. Laura Ciotto , program operations, is at the far left. Co-director Joyce Yen is at the far left, middle row. Director Sheri Mizumori is fifth from the right in the front row.

The 2019 cohort for the BRAINS program, or Broadening the Representations of Academic Investigators in NeuroScience. Program evaluator Cara Margherio is in the back row, two people to the left of the post. Co-director Claire Horner-Devine is at the far right. Laura Ciotto , program operations, is at the far left. Co-director Joyce Yen is at the far left, middle row. Director Sheri Mizumori is fifth from the right in the front row.

A University of Washington-based program to support underrepresented scholars in neuroscience got its start when three faculty members responded to a call for proposals by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, or NINDS.

The resulting program is called Broadening the Representations of Academic Investigators in NeuroScience — but has a striking acronym: BRAINS. The program, designed to accelerate career advancement for postdoctoral researchers and assistant professors, offers professional development, mentoring and networking for participating scholars from underrepresented populations.

UW Notebook talked with Sheri Mizumori, UW professor of psychology and principal investigator of the BRAINS Program, which is now seeking its third five-year grant of $250,000 annually from the NINDS.

BRAINS news release:
National program positively impacts over 150 neuroscientists from underrepresented groups

Retention of highly-skilled scientists from diverse and underrepresented groups is critical for increased innovation in neuroscience. Unfortunately, individuals from underrepresented groups often have higher turnover rates, especially early in their career, due to a greater sense of isolation and inequitable access to networks, mentors, and key resources that affect career success.

Since 2011, Broadening the Representation of Academic Investigators in NeuroScience (BRAINS) has connected over 150 accomplished early-career neuroscientists from underrepresented groups to skill development opportunities and a dynamic network of professionals in the biomedical workforce …

Read more.

What need does the BRAINS program seek to address?

Retaining a diverse faculty and building diverse leadership are critical aims of BRAINS, Mizumori said.

“When you look across the country, there has been significant effort to increase diversity in science, and in particular neuroscience. But we are concerned because statistics show that the needle just hasn’t moved very much over time.

“It’s kind of surprising. When you look to see at what career stage we are losing people, it ends up that there’s a huge drop-off between the postdoctoral years and the early faculty years — disproportionately so for underrepresented minorities. And so we homed in on that particular career stage, thinking that that’s a career stage where the country needs focused intervention.”

She said it can be difficult being the “only” — the only person of color, of a cultural background, or with a particular ability status: “One of reasons it is difficult is that the spotlight is put more directly on you, so anything you do is amplified, with everybody watching. I’ve experienced this as well.

“Also, when you are one of — maybe the only one, or one of very few from underrepresented minorities — then you tend to be asked more often to be on a committee because they want some particular type of person. This is true for women as well; if (the committee) is all men, they need a woman. And if you are junior faculty it’s really hard to say no. After a while, many junior scientists just don’t want to deal with the constant extra pressure and scrutiny anymore and so they leave science.”

How did the program come about at the UW?

Mizumori said that her interest in working to increase diversity in neuroscience grew with meeting Joyce Yen, director of UW ADVANCE Center for Institutional Change and was further piqued when the NINDS put out a call for proposals aimed at the same goal.

She said Yen and colleague Claire Horner-Devine previously ran a professional development program for women in biology that was quite successful.

“We all wondered if the biology model could work also for neuroscientists. We researched the request for proposals, talked to the program officers and submitted our first grant application. And it was funded!”

What is the process like for applicants?

A requirement for BRAINS, Mizumori said, is that each participant must already be successful in research as demonstrated by having a postdoctoral or early career position in the neurosciences. Those interested fill out a set of questions and write an essay on why the program would be helpful to them, she said.

“With guidance from the BRAINS program evaluator, Cara Margherio, we have a way of assessing the applicants’ responses. Based on this assessment, we prioritize high-potential individuals for whom the program could have the largest impact. The program chooses about 30 participants who attend a four-day symposium held every other year on Bainbridge Island.

“Crucially, the grant covers their transportation and housing costs, making it possible for them to attend. Additional applicants participate in a web-based BRAINS program so that the program can be available to as many people as possible. Alternate years bring what they call a cross-cohort meeting where BRAINS alumni gather to enhance networking and to build on prior career advancement training in BRAINS.”

BRAINS by the numbers
(from a paper by Joyce Yen, Cara Margherio and Sheri Mizumori):

“The percentage of neuroscience graduate students from racially and ethnically underrepresented minorities is low (12%). According to the NSF’s Survey of Earned Doctorates (2001 through 2013), of 10,000 neuroscience PhDs earned by U.S. citizens and permanent residents, only about 8.5% were awarded to persons from underrepresented groups…”

“While there are no definitive data on the number of neuroscientists with disabilities and their career paths, of the 96,345 PhDs awarded from 2003 to 2012 in the biological sciences or psychology (common fields for neuroscientists), only 2% (2,102 degrees) were awarded to persons with disabilities.”


What does the symposium involve?

The sessions, she said, include training in leadership, teamwork, time management, saying no diplomatically, dealing with harassment and “thriving as an only,” among other topics.

“It’s really about building a sense of community that most of our participants have never experienced before,” she said. “There is a lot of cross-fertilization that happens. Past participants tells us that they leave the symposium empowered and ready to take charge of their careers.”

Symposium sessions, she said, are led not only by the BRAINS co-directors but also by senior neuroscience leaders from around the country. These sessions marked the first time that several of the early and advanced career neuroscientists, including Mizumori, had ever openly discussed their experiences.

“In the past, there was no way to talk about issues unique to being of underrepresented status because people think you are weak, or complaining,” she said.

What has been the effect?

“I’d say one of the most common phrases that we hear — because we are continually doing surveys to collect data for our evaluation and research, is ‘Transformative.’ And ‘life changing.’

“Now, all of a sudden, our participants have people who believe in them, who give them tips about how to deal with particular situations that might arise uniquely for underrepresented scientists.

“Since we now have about 150 BRAINS alumni, they can network among themselves — and we teach them how to do this. So now they have lots of mentors that look like them, that are at their current and next career stage, and they have a nationwide community that they can talk to.”

The work is being noticed, Mizumori said, with the UW now being recognized in the national neuroscience community as an institution that is working hard to increase the diversity and inclusion of neuroscience faculty.

How do you know it’s working?

“We continue to collect longitudinal evaluation data. BRAINS participants have reported statistically significant improvements in mentoring relationships, networking activities, their sense of belonging in neuroscience, and their satisfaction with their career progression. The influence of the BRAINS program extends beyond these direct positive impacts, as participants also report improvements in their ability to mentor other neuroscientists.”

How is the BRAINS Program involved at the UW?

Mizumori said a number of UW faculty and postdocs have participated in and benefited directly from the BRAINS program. Program members also are working with the Neuroscience Program Seminar Committee to bring BRAINS alumni to the university to give research talks. Mizumori advises the Neuroscience Program Diversity Committee as well, bringing the BRAINS philosophy to discussions of faculty recruitment and retention.

What is follow-up like for participants?

BRAINS is the only professional development program for early career neuroscientists that offers career-long advice and community, she said.

“We follow our participants long after the initial symposium to make sure that they understand how to implement our tips and tools. The long-term follow-up is a feature that is really different about BRAINS. Also our ability to continually grow their community over time is different.

In our program there are structures that help participants to continue to communicate, and to take control over that communication so we don’t always have to be the mediators. And that carries on, then, independently.”

Other ongoing help, Mizumori said, is provided online and through video calls, and the program helps participants attend the annual meeting for the Society for Neuroscience. “For those who can’t afford to go, part of our grant is to help them get there.”

“We have a saying: ‘Once in BRAINS, always in BRAINS.”