At NINDS, we anchor our efforts and activities on our mission statement: seeking fundamental knowledge about the brain and nervous system, and using that knowledge to reduce the burden of neurological disease for all people. I have been reflecting on that last clause often lately: for all people. It is imperative that our efforts to fund and support neuroscience research lead to advances that benefit all people and that we promote inclusive excellence in this grand endeavor. Scientific discovery and innovation depend on a pool of highly talented scientists from diverse backgrounds, and NINDS recognizes that achieving diversity in the neuroscience workforce is critical to realizing our research goals.
I am grateful that throughout the year, we have opportunities to recognize the contributions of groups whose cultures provide a truly unique and valuable perspective. During Hispanic Heritage Month, taking place from September 15-October 15, NIH is honoring the cultures and efforts of those whose roots are in Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central and South America. Relative to the United States population, Hispanic/Latin/a/o/X scientists are a highly underrepresented racial/ethnic group at the NIH and among NIH grant recipients. Yet, tremendous contributions have come from Hispanic/Latin/a/o/X scientists. In fact, my early scientific career rested on the generous mentorship of membrane biologists from Argentina and Chile. As I recall the story from the 1970’s, the scientific opportunities presented by the Chilean giant squid axon attracted a host of scientists to South America and gave rise to the careers of a number of superb membrane biophysicists from South and Central America. Our good friend, Dr. Miguel Holmgren, in the NINDS intramural program is a relative of this science family and continues to use the squid axon to answer important neurobiological questions. Today, a number of successful neuroscientists have been supported through NINDS research training and career development programs. Among these are:
- Daniel Colón-Ramos, Ph.D., Yale University. Dr. Colón-Ramos’ research seeks to understand how synapses are precisely assembled to build the neuronal architecture that underlies behavior. Prior to his appointment at Yale, he was supported by a K99/R00 award through NINDS. Since then, he has received the NINDS Landis Award for Outstanding Mentorship, and his trainees have been supported by research supplements to promote diversity.
- John Del Rosario, Ph.D., Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences-New Jersey Medical School. Dr. Del Rosario’s Ph.D. thesis focused on elucidating the molecular and cellular pathways that modulate the activity Piezo2 channels, which respond to mechanical stimuli like touch. His long-term goal is to investigate the cellular and molecular mechanisms that affect mechanosensation during chronic pain. Dr. Del Rosario has been supported by the NIH Blueprint Diversity Specialized Predoctoral to Postdoctoral Advancement in Neuroscience (D-SPAN) Award.
- Nidia Quillinan, Ph.D., University of Colorado, Anschutz Medical Campus. Dr. Quillinan’s laboratory studies excitability and plasticity changes in the brain following cerebral ischemia, or a lapse in blood supply to the brain, with a particular interest in cerebellar networks that are affected by stroke and cardiac arrest. She has been supported by the NINDS K01 (Faculty Development Award to Promote Diversity in Neuroscience Research).
- Elba Serrano, Ph.D., New Mexico State University. Dr. Serrano's research focuses on the sensory systems for hearing and balance, neurogenetics, and glial neurobiology. She was a PI for the Blueprint ENDURE (Enhancing Neuroscience Diversity through Undergraduate Research Education Experiences) Initiative, which aims to raise interest and opportunities in neuroscience research for individuals who are typically underrepresented in the field. Dr. Serrano is the recipient of numerous awards and honors, including the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Mentoring conferred by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
Ensuring a vibrant, talented, and diverse community of neuroscientists is one of the cross-cutting strategies outlined in our 2021-2026 NINDS Strategic Plan, which covers both the extramural, intramural and NIH workforce. The breadth of this challenge and slow pace of progress in increasing diversity among neuroscience researchers is humbling, yet I am proud that NINDS staff have been developing creative and effective programs for years. Just last month, NINDS received approval from our advisory council, the National Advisory Neurological Disorders and Stroke Council, for a new initiative that will bridge the critical career stage gap between college and graduate school for post-baccalaureate individuals who previously did not have rich access to rigorous research opportunities. NINDS has also created a Notice of Special Interest (NOSI) for research project applications submitted by investigators from diverse backgrounds, including under-represented minorities. These and our other programs are based on the explicit recognition and acknowledgment that diversity and scientific excellence go hand in hand and that diverse viewpoints strengthen the science.
As we recognize the terrific contributions of individuals from Hispanic and Latin/a/o/X backgrounds across the research community, we also seek to support and share resources here at NIH for trainees and staff that will foster their success and professional development. The Society for Advancing Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) has a local NIH-SACNAS chapter for students and professionals, providing a forum for the exchange of ideas and a place where NIH trainees and staff from different science disciplines can meet to network, share successes, and strategize about future goals in a supportive environment.
In addition, HOLA NINDS (Hispanic or Latin/o/a/X Ambassadors and Allies to NINDS) is a newly formed employee resource group (ERG) that has identified a critical need to support Hispanic/Latin/a/o/X staff and trainees at NINDS. Our staff are crucial to the Institute’s success in advancing its mission to benefit all people, and our Hispanic/Latin/a/o/X staff are a vital part of the Institute's workforce culture. HOLA NINDS follows a history of affinity groups at NIH that allow staff to be part of a supportive community. The group includes Hispanic/Latin/a/o/X scientists, researchers, physicians, and administrative/scientific support staff, and works together to support the NIH and NINDS mission to promote diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility in the internal and extramural workforce. Recently, the group led an educational and reflective dialogue with our extramural staff that highlighted their critical experiences and perspectives, as well as the challenges we acknowledge, with candor and vulnerability that enables us to welcome difficult conversations and raise our collective awareness and efforts towards defeating structural exclusion and racism.
True inclusion and diversity in science means that as individual scientists, we can comfortably be our whole selves, and that as a scientific community, we can proudly celebrate each other’s contributions to our shared mission. At NINDS, we are proud to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month. We are committed to contributing to NIH’s diversity efforts more broadly to ensure the equity, inclusion, belonging, and advancement of all, as we prosecute our mission to advance our understanding of the nervous system and use that knowledge to reduce the burden due to neurological disorders.