Creating interest in an academic career as well as retaining individuals until they are full-time faculty is a pressing issue for the field of neuroscience. University of Minnesota Medical School’s Department of Neuroscience faculty, Paul Mermelstein, PhD, associate department head and professor, and Robert Meisel, PhD, professor, received a $250,000 per year grant from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, called "A Longitudinal Mentoring Approach to Increase Diversity Among Researchers of Neurological Disorders," to study the problem in detail and develop tangible solutions.

The number of underrepresented individuals in neuroscience faculty positions is lower than two decades ago in programs across the U.S. It’s not because people aren’t entering graduate school either. The retention issue is mostly due to them leaving academia before becoming tenured faculty. In the spring of 2019, Drs. Mermelstein and Meisel first set out to create a novel mentoring program to address this concern, which ultimately garnered the attention of the National Institutes of Health.

“We think this is critical. In neuroscience there are so many levels of analysis. You can look at individual cells that have been cultured or you could be doing brain imaging studies in people. There’s enormous diversity in the problems that researchers work with. Intellectually speaking, we need people who are going to approach studies from different intersecting points to deliver a diversity of thought. You don’t always want consensus, rather you want to generate debate, otherwise you don’t learn anything,” Dr. Meisel said.

Both researchers will conduct qualitative research with 15 participants to better understand where barriers exist, why people choose different paths and how the department can better enable individuals’ progression through different stages of professional development. Their hope is that by elucidating the issue, they can turn more graduate students into postdoctoral fellows, more postdoctoral fellows into assistant professors and more assistant professors into tenured professors. 

“We have this problem that, towards the pathway to independence, we have numerous individuals who are leaving this career for another one. So, our goal is to do this longitudinal program on mentorship, so that we can create a support network to keep people in the field by making sure that those who choose this path are successful in achieving their unique goals,” Dr. Mermelstein said. 

Establishing a Common Goal

There are many common goals of mentorship, including publishing papers, obtaining grant funding and being the first to demonstrate something scientifically, but in regards to career advancement and professional development, there is clearly work to be done. Developing strong mentors is a point of emphasis for the department, and Drs. Meisel and Memerlstein view it as one of the keys to improvement. 

“Mentoring the mentors is an important aspect of this. It really is a constant learning process when it comes to being a good mentor. Some areas of professional development aren’t emphasized because they’re not shared goals. By having a program where we can tackle other areas of professional development besides career readiness, we hope will encourage individuals to stay within the field,” Dr. Mermelstein said.

Currently, most mentoring is one-on-one, which can create issues when transition points arrive. 

“It’s very difficult, if you’re a graduate student, to admit to your advisor that you have insecurities about being good enough to have a faculty position. How do you say that to somebody who you want to write you a letter of recommendation? The same thing for someone who’s an assistant professor trying to achieve tenure. We want to create a small community in which you can try to express those concerns and to come up with solutions about how to overcome them,” Dr. Meisel said.

These mentoring networks will hopefully expand over time to facilitate career progression and enable diversity of thought. Students and trainees need to be able to challenge advisors and have the self-confidence to speak honestly with people of higher status. 

“People who come from differing backgrounds, whether it’s urban or rural or different socioeconomic situations, they’re going to generate different ideas for how to solve a problem. It could be a therapeutic approach, basic science work or maybe another method. If you have a very homogenous group of people, then you’re not going to have diversity of thought. We want to have as many different viewpoints as possible when generating ideas to solve a problem,” Dr. Meisel said.

Starting Young

In addition to retention efforts during graduate school and postdoctoral training, the department has taken steps to improve its diversity, equity and inclusion efforts by reaching out to high school students and getting them interested in scientific research.

“A lot of kids think this isn’t for them. They say, ‘I know there are professors at the University of Minnesota, but I can’t do that.’ We’re trying to show and convince them that these are legitimate career opportunities for everyone,” Dr. Meisel said. 

By improving the number of faculty members from underrepresented backgrounds, communicating to young people that an academic career in neuroscience is a viable option will also be improved, and hopefully that interest will translate into an academic career.

“Where are all of the role models saying that these kids can be successful here? We need to bring together a cohort that will not only say, ‘you can do this,’ but can also understand and recognize obstacles and how to overcome the roadblocks that are specific to your background,” Dr. Meisel said. 

Both researchers were adamant that the department has been able to take these steps because of significant grant funding as well as their institution’s desire to continually improve. 

“There have been some really significant acts by the Medical School’s administration to come up with tangible ways to change the face of academic research in medicine. I don’t know if we could’ve done this at another institution, and I’m proud to be a part of a significant initiative by the University. Our ability to generate this program is really a testament to the University and the Medical School,” Dr. Meisel said.