The University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center will get a boost in its efforts to enhance the scientific career training of students from underrepresented backgrounds with its share of $31 million in new grant funding from the National Institutes of Health.

The NIH awards, announced this week, are part of a projected five-year effort to support more than 50 awardees and partnering institutions through the Diversity Program Consortium, which focuses on encouraging people to embark on biomedical research careers. The award will mean nearly $1 million over five years for the UNM Health Sciences Center.

UNM belongs to a team of university partners led by The University of Texas at El Paso that are sharing an NIH Building Infrastructure Leading to Diversity (BUILD) award. Cell biologist Helen Hathaway, PhD, is UNM’s principal investigator and one of several dozen UNM faculty members participating in the university’s Academic Science Education and Research Training program (ASERT).

The ASERT program enrolls a dozen members each year, providing postdoctoral fellows with three years of support in developing their skills as educators and research scientists in biology, bioengineering and biomedical scientists. Led by Angela Wandinger-Ness, PhD, professor of pathology in the UNM School of Medicine, it pairs students and trainees with mentors at minority-serving institutions, including Central New Mexico Community College, New Mexico State University and Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute.

“This award is a major milestone for us,” said Richard S. Larson, MD, PhD, executive vice chancellor at the Health Sciences Center. “This funding will help us in our goal of enhancing the diversity of our research workforce.”

Larson also noted that UNM was one of a handful of institutions that qualified for the highly competitive awards. “It’s a real tribute to the strength of our research enterprise and our commitment to nurturing career development for our young scientists.”

Economic, social and cultural factors have a powerful impact on the pursuit of science careers, research has shown, suggesting that a fundamental shift in the way scientists are trained and mentored is required to attract and sustain the interest of people from underrepresented groups in the scientific workforce. 

“The biomedical research enterprise must engage all sectors of the population in order to solve the most complex biological problems and discover innovative new ways to improve human health,” said NIH Director Francis S. Collins, MD, PhD.

“While past efforts to diversify our workforce have had significant impact on individuals, we have not made substantial progress in expanding diversity on a larger scale,” Collins added. “This program will test new models of training and mentoring so that we can ultimately attract the best minds from all groups to biomedical research.”

The NIH awards have been made to a geographically diverse group of institutions that serve populations that have been underrepresented in biomedical research. The awardees will develop training and mentoring measures to encourage more students from these groups to pursue research careers.

The consortium of awardees will establish hallmarks of success at each phase of the biomedical career path, measuring such skills as leadership, grant writing, innovation and networking. The consortium will disseminate lessons learned, so effective approaches can be adopted nationwide.

“These awards represent a significant step toward ensuring that NIH’s future biomedical research workforce will reflect the unique perspectives found within the diverse composition of our society,” said Hannah Valantine, MD, NIH chief officer for scientific workforce diversity.