Microbiome researcher finds her niche

My research is supported by a diversity supplement to my mentor’s NIH R01 grant, and I have always been ashamed. I don’t usually tell people I have this funding unless I have to—not everyone is eligible, and I had to argue my eligibility (I am Filipino American). I was ashamed that I wasn’t a good enough candidate to get my own fellowship funding. I was ashamed that I had to rely on funding specifically set aside for scientists from minority or disadvantaged backgrounds to fund what I love doing. Most of all, I was ashamed that I couldn’t compete on what most people see as a level playing field.

A few weeks ago, however, I attended a workshop that completely changed the way I see diversity supplement funding. Every two years, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease invites all trainees funded by a diversity supplement to come to Washington D.C. for a two-day workshop they call “Bridging the Gap.”  Thought it sounds hyperbolic, my life has been irreversibly changed by attending this short, two-day conference.  As a result of this workshop, I feel much more comfortable with where I stand in my career. And finally, for the first time, I feel proud to have research funded by a diversity supplement.

During the workshop, I realized I felt more at home with this diverse group of trainees than I typically do. It felt like a weight had been lifted from my shoulders, and I had no idea why. I’ve had some time to reflect on it and when I’m in a diverse group.

  • I feel more at ease. I stop worrying that my opinions and experiences might represent an entire group of people.
  • I worry less about feeling singled out. Diverse groups emphasize that it doesn’t matter what I look like or who my family is. I’m a voice in a group of equally valid voices.
  • I finally let my guard down enough so I can make a real, personal connection with other trainees.

This workshop, “Bridging the Gap,” made me feel like I finally had a home, people to call my professional family. I found “my people”—people who talked like me or speak with accents like my immigrant parents do. People who sounded like me and asked important, insightful questions; people who made comments that resonated with me and my experiences; people who didn’t sound like they were posturing; people who were being themselves, free of pretense.

I’m honored and thankful that this funding source exists. That NIAID and NIH and HHS and Congress and the public thinks that having a diverse group of research scientists investigating infectious disease is valuable, necessary, and worth this investment (which is relatively small in the scope of the federal budget). This diversity supplement was the right thing for me, and I’ve never been so happy to be a scientist-in-training. I hope every NIH institute offers diversity supplement funding and I hope they all offer something like the “Bridging the Gap” workshop to build community and connect trainees with mentors.

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