NINDS Recognizes Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander Heritage Month 2022: Not a Monolith

May is Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander (AA and NHPI) Heritage Month – a time for us to highlight the many contributions of our AA and NHPI members in the NINDS community, and to recognize the efforts of our AA and NHPI staff. This month is also a time for the nation to reflect on how we can better understand the diversity of those within the AA and NHPI communities, and to re-affirm our commitment to diversity and inclusion. This year’s theme for AANHPI Heritage Month is: We Are Not a Monolith, and I encourage you to visit the NIH Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) website, which highlights a curated collection of resources, references, and first-person perspectives that help us better understand the diversity of those within the AA and NHPI community.

In research, recent work shows that American AA and NHPI adults face a disproportionately higher risk of having a deadly type of stroke that causes bleeding into the brain, and that they experience these strokes at a younger age than their White peers. Additionally, AA and NHPI communities are among the fastest-growing segments of the U.S. population, but frequent aggregation of these populations can potentially mask important social and health differences. To better understand these disparities, NINDS has signed onto an NIH Notice of Special Interest to support epidemiologic studies in Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders, in order to enhance our understanding of the interplay of environmental, social, behavioral, biological, and other factors that impact the health of AA and NHPI subpopulations. In addition, NINDS has been developing a forthcoming Health Equity Strategic Plan, which will guide our investments in research to eliminate health disparities and promote health equity in neurological disorders. 

I also want to recognize Asian-American scientists who have received prestigious NINDS awards for their contributions to research. Drs. Yuh-Nung and Lily Jan, researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, are both recipients of the NINDS Research Program Award (R35). Dr. Yuh-Nung Jan’s research focuses on understanding the basic mechanisms that control diversity of neuronal morphology, dendrite development, and neuronal circuitry formation, and Dr. Lily Jan studies the development and function of the nervous system, particularly through the function and regulation of potassium channels and calcium-activated chloride channels. Both are vocal advocates for the AANHPI community: Dr. Yuh-Nung Jan wrote recently about the underrepresentation of Asian-identifying awardees in biomedical research prizes, giving voice to a longstanding issue for individuals from the AANHPI community who feel less recognized for their efforts, compared to their White colleagues.

We also highlight those scientists who have been recognized as outstanding mentors: Dr. Lily Jan has received the NINDS Landis Award for Outstanding Mentorship, praised by her trainees for leading by example and simultaneously encouraging them to pursue their research ideas and passions. Additionally, Dr. Zu-Hang Sheng, NINDS Intramural investigator and Chief of the Synaptic Function Section at NINDS, received the Dr. Francisco S. Sy Award for Excellence in Mentorship at HHS in 2021, from the Federal Asian Pacific American Council (FAPAC). His research focuses on the mechanisms regulating energy metabolism in neurodegeneration and regeneration.

At NINDS, our leadership are also vocal advocates for the AANHPI community. The Director of the NINDS Division of Translational Research, Dr. Amir Tamiz, leads the Division in its mission to accelerate advances from preclinical discoveries to new treatments for neurological disorders, and he is committed to including diverse voices in the translational space. Additionally, in candid conversations with Dr. John Ngai, Director of the NIH BRAIN Initiative, he and I, along with NEI Director Dr. Michael Chiang, have discussed bias and discrimination against Asian and Asian-American scientists, and what NINDS – and the overall biomedical community – must do to ensure that our scientific community remains a welcoming place for international scholars to pursue their academic dreams.

At NIH, we are also sensitive to concerns related to the Department of Justice’s former “China Initiative” that has evoked a range of emotions including fear, anger, and declining morale, particularly among U.S. scientists of Asian and Chinese descent, who feel an increased sense of scrutiny. These sentiments have unfortunately been exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic and have resulted in increased hate incidents in the U.S. against AA and NHPI individuals. As I have written previously, the mission of NINDS—to seek fundamental knowledge about the brain and nervous system and to use that knowledge to reduce the burden of neurological disease— applies to all people, regardless of their race, ethnicity, or national origin. The best science in pursuit of this mission is not reliant on a researcher’s nationality. We know that international collaboration is critical to the biomedical enterprise, and we at NINDS are committed to treating scientists of all backgrounds with fairness and respect. To those scientists identifying as Asian or Asian-American who may be feeling anxious in these times – you are valued. Indeed, every person deserves a sense of safety and belonging.

At NIH, although AA and NHPI individuals represent almost 20% of the NIH workforce, as noted by Acting NIH Director Dr. Larry Tabak, AA and NHPI representation in senior leadership positions continues to lag behind. To develop actionable solutions and recognize the importance of tailored approaches to cultivating leadership in the executive ranks, NIH is engaging with leadership, employee resource groups, and other parts of the workforce, and we will seize opportunities to address the leadership gap for AA and NHPI individuals at NIH. One such employee group is the NIH Federation of Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders (AANHPI) Network, a group organized in 2021 whose mission is to cultivate an inclusive workplace where AANHPIs at the NIH feel seen, heard, valued, and have equal opportunities to thrive. This broad coalition of NIH AANHPI focused Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) is working to increase visibility and provide a collective voice representing the wide range of perspectives, experiences, and knowledge within the AANHPI community and beyond.

Ensuring a vibrant, talented, and diverse community of neuroscientists – who feel recognized, and who know that they belong – is just one of the cross-cutting strategies outlined in our 2021-2026 NINDS Strategic Plan. As we celebrate AA and NHPI Heritage Month and all year long, we will strive to honor our AA and NHPI neuroscientists, and to foster equity and inclusivity in neuroscience for AA and NHPI communities, and for all people.