U.Va. Curry School Researchers Head $1.275 Million NIH Study of Why Minorities Are Underrepresented in Research

Listen to the UVA Today Radio Show report on this story by Rebecca Arrington:

October 13, 2010 — A new University of Virginia study is examining what factors cause some minorities to be underrepresented in the ranks of biomedical researchers – a situation that could have a negative impact on health care.

Two U.Va. researchers, Robert Tai and Heather Wathington, are the principal investigators of a new study that is seeking to discover what accounts for the educational choices made by minorities underrepresented in research, why individuals choose to become scientists in the first place, how and why they make the professional choices that lead them to become independent researchers, and why some leave the field at various stages.

The study, "Transitions in the Education of Minorities Underrepresented in Research," or Project TREMUR, received a $1.275 million grant from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences of the National Institutes of Health this summer.

Blacks and Latinos represent less than 10 percent of the biomedical research corps, a proportion entirely unrepresentative of the demographic diversity of the United States.

Tai says the consequences of such underrepresentation are potentially very serious, a situation that NIH recognizes.

"As a general rule, scientists are passionate about their research. This passion is often drawn from their personal experience, as it is with us all," Tai said. "As a result, many biomedical researchers choose to study the diseases that they have some personal connection to.

"Given our growing understanding of the genetic basis of many diseases, a lack of diversity in the biomedical research corps may also mean that many diseases facing segments of the U.S. population who are not represented in this corps of biomedical researchers will not be studied as extensively.

"Project TREMUR is aimed at helping to understand how the biomedical research corps might be diversified," Tai said.

Wathington said that the study will closely examine what factor education and training play in the academic and career decisions of potential biomedical researchers.

"As we learn more about what factors contribute to the underrepresentation of minorities in biomedical research, we hope to better understand how schools, colleges and research communities play a role in developing or discouraging minority scientists," she said. "In the end, we want to generate recommendations for how we might improve educational practice to diversify the biomedical research field."

Tai and Wathington, professors in U.Va.'s Curry School of Education, are working with researchers from the Washington University of St. Louis School of Medicine, Dr. Dorothy Andriole and Donna Jeffe, to conduct the study. The work is now under way, and Tai and Wathington expect to issue a report in 2015, to be published in 2016.

Tai said this is the only study of its type nationally. "While there are other studies that examine the experiences of biomedical researchers, this is the only study that will combine a large-scale interview study with analysis of large-scale longitudinal data," he said.

Though not directly tied to other K-12 and higher education initiatives, Tai noted that the study findings will be "very important to policymakers" in matters related to science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

-- by Rebecca Arrington