NINDS recognizes 2022 Black History Month: A time to celebrate and reflect

This year marks the 47th annual celebration of Black History Month. This month, across NIH and NINDS, we recognize the contributions of the Black community to science and to our society. I find that taking time to learn about and honor these contributions keeps them alive in my everyday conversations, and I am always inspired by the personal stories behind the science NINDS supports. This month is also a time to reflect on what we have done—and what more we can do—to bring more diverse perspectives to NINDS-funded science, attract students from all walks of life to careers in neuroscience, and support research that furthers neuro-health equity for everyone.

The theme for this year’s Black History Month is Black Health and Wellness. At NINDS, we are committed to seeking knowledge about the brain and nervous system, and to using this knowledge to reduce the burden of neurological disease for all people, including Black people. Yet, striking data show that Black Americans are disproportionately affected by stroke, high blood pressure, and many other conditions. NINDS is working diligently on addressing health disparities in neurological disorders, an effort led by Richard Benson, M.D., Ph.D., Director of the NINDS Office of Global Health and Health Disparities (OGHHD). Recently, Dr. Benson and I published an editorial in Stroke describing challenges and opportunities in health disparities research. Along with our research programs and public health campaigns like Mind Your Risks, NINDS supports Hip Hop Stroke, led by Olajide Williams, M.D., a unique program that empowers 4th-6th grade children with stroke-related knowledge through hip hop music and culturally-tailored activities designed to improve health literacy. Additionally, Cheryse Sankar, Ph.D., program director in OGHHD, oversees a new program for the NIH HEAL Initiative on Advancing Health Equity in Pain Management and Pain Comorbidities.

At NINDS, achieving diversity in the neuroscience workforce is critical to meeting our research goals. Recently, to spread the word about our funding opportunities for trainees, NINDS partnered with Black In Neuro, a grassroots initiative that aims to connect, celebrate, and amplify Black scholars and professionals in neuroscience. I was proud that several members of the Black In Neuro team are or were supported by NINDS research training grants. Their community-building work is incredibly meaningful and may very well be a true force for change. Among them are:

  • Kaela Singleton, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow at Emory University and adjunct faculty at Agnes Scott College. Dr. Singleton studies the role of mitochondria in Menkes disease, a rare genetic disorder that interferes with how the body regulates copper. She was supported by the NIH Blueprint Diversity Specialized Predoctoral to Postdoctoral Advancement in Neuroscience (D-SPAN) F99/K00 award and the ENDURE program.
  • Brielle Ferguson, Ph.D., a postdoctoral scholar at Stanford University. Dr. Ferguson’s research focuses on cellular and circuit mechanisms of attention. She is supported by an NIH BRAIN Initiative Pathway to Independence Award (K99/R00) and was previously awarded an NINDS NRSA postdoctoral fellowship (F32).
  • Ti’Air Riggins, Ph.D., a postdoctoral researcher at Case Western Reserve University. Dr. Riggins’ research aims to integrate tissue engineering with implantable neurotechnologies to tune immune responses in the brain. She is supported by an F99/K00 D-SPAN award.
  • Gina Poe, Ph.D., professor of integrative biology and physiology at UCLA. Dr. Poe studies the neural mechanisms by which sleep serves learning and memory consolidation. She is a co-investigator for the Society for Neuroscience: Neuroscience Scholars Program, supported by a NINDS research education program (R25) award. Dr. Poe also serves on the National Advisory Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NANDS) Council.

The NINDS Office of Programs to Enhance Workforce Diversity (OPEN), led by Michelle Jones-London, Ph.D., has established various strategies to build a more diverse neuroscience workforce. OPEN’s creative programs – several of which have supported the individuals highlighted above – provide financial support and resources to aspiring scientists across research career stages, from undergraduate research to landing their faculty dream jobs at universities.

For example, the NIH Blueprint Enhancing Neuroscience Diversity through Undergraduate Research Education Experience (ENDURE) engages undergraduates from underrepresented groups in an immersive two-year research program. ENDURE programs partner with historically Black colleges and universities (HBCU) and can also be found at institutions across the country, including Brooklyn College, Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center, Temple University, and Washington University in St. Louis. The NIH Neuroscience Development for Advancing the Careers of a Diverse Research Workforce program supported by NINDS and the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) also funds educational activities that encourage individuals from diverse backgrounds to pursue further studies or careers in research: the Atlanta University Consortium (Morehouse College, Spelman College and Clark Atlanta University) Bachelor of Science/Master of Science in Neuroscience program is just one stellar example. Participating students in this three-year program receive a master’s degree and laboratory research experience that will help them succeed as Ph.D. scientists or physicians. At the other end of the career ladder, the NINDS Diversity Faculty K01 fills a critical need to support talented diverse researchers at the tenure-track faculty level. We highlight the scientific journeys of several successful Diversity K01 awardees in the series From Potential to Action: NINDS Awardees Navigate Diverse Paths to Success.

NINDS investments in building a more diverse, inclusive neuroscience workforce benefit when we listen and understand the needs of the research community. We recently published findings from a survey of over 1400 Ph.D. neuroscientists on factors influencing career choice, particularly among individuals from underrepresented groups. NINDS also engages with the community through meetings, workshops, and partnerships with scientific professional societies. At the 2021 American College of Neuropharmacology conference, Marguerite Matthews, Ph.D., program director at NINDS, led a discussion panel on how we can better support Black scientists and heard ideas for ensuring equitable access to funding, promoting effective mentorship, and enhancing outreach and community engagement.

Although we still have a lot to achieve, this Black History Month, I am grateful for the Black scientists, NINDS staff, and programs I spotlight today. I am hopeful that we are building a diverse, talented workforce that will embrace new perspectives, address health inequities, and accelerate cutting-edge brain research that benefits everyone. As outlined in our 2021-2026 NINDS Strategic Plan: Investing in the Future of Neuroscience, we will strive to make neuroscience welcoming and equitable for Black scientists and for all people.