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Closing the equity gap in science
By Deborah Giattina / Tue Feb 14, 2023
Working in a research lab can be daunting, especially when you are the only Black researcher on the bench. “You’re surrounded by people who don’t come from where you come from or have had the same struggles you’ve had,” said Ce’Aysia, a high school senior from Bayview-Hunters Point who interned in the lab of Michael Grabe, PhD, at UCSF in the summer of 2022.
Yet Ce’Aysia wasn’t alone at the bench after all. Over the course of her eight weeks at Mission Bay, she was mentored by scientists with shared identities and lived experiences and provided social and professional resources to succeed in STEM, thanks to UCSF’s Bay Area Youth Science (BAYS) program, housed in the School of Pharmacy’s Department of Pharmaceutical Chemistry and led by graduate student leaders in Black Excellence in STEM (BE-STEM).
Over the last two years the BAYS internship has drawn students from historically excluded backgrounds and welcomed them in UCSF labs, attempting to counter a deep-seated disparity of Black and LatinX students who pursue STEM careers. The program recruits rising high school seniors from KIPP San Francisco College Prep, a charter school that serves students and families from Bayview-Hunters Point, one of San Francisco’s most underserved neighborhoods.
Beginning with an immersive lecture series, BAYS culminates in an eight-week paid research internship. During the internship, students spend Fridays with the UCSF Center for Science Education and Outreach (CSEO) gaining skills in financial competency, career development, and navigating academia. When the scholars return to school in the fall, BAYS hosts a paid three-month college application boot camp and connects BAYS scholars with their peers and mentors as they prepare to matriculate into higher education.
Chase Webb, a PhD candidate in the Pharmaceutical Science and Pharmacogenomics graduate program, founded BAYS in the wake of the George Floyd protests in 2020, joining the university’s wider reckoning on racial inequality and oppression. He wanted the program to make good on UCSF’s push to be a leader in equity, inclusion, and diversity in academia and medicine—particularly in light of historical and ongoing distrust between the university and the city’s underserved groups.
“We see BAYS as a restorative justice effort to mitigate those past wrongs,” said Webb, who received the UCSF Chancellor’s Award for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Leadership in 2021.
It’s challenging work, helping high schoolers adjust to the fast-paced environments of UCSF labs, but the growing community of mentors and interns speaks to its necessity. “Ultimately, we hope to strengthen the ability of UCSF to conduct breakthrough biomedical science by initiating bright and capable youngsters into the academy and investing in their development,” said Webb.
Making science welcoming to all
Ever since she was little, Ce’Aysia wanted to be a veterinarian, but she wasn’t sure that career path was open to her. Despite her 4.6 grade point average, the soft-spoken KIPP senior worried she wasn’t prepared for a STEM career in part because of fast turnover of her teachers in high school. “I didn’t really have anybody to look up to or have a strong connection with,” she said. “And then on top of that, COVID hit.”
BAYS partners closely with KIPP to recruit students like Ce’Aysia and show them that the world of white coats, glass beakers, and microscopes really is within their reach, making a point to make time for interns to learn from graduate students and postdocs who come from similar ethnic backgrounds. Last year, the BAYS Program also set up opportunities for interns to spend time informally with graduate student leaders in BE-STEM and the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics & Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) through a weekly lunch session. “How cool is it to show them that scientists aren’t just all white men and that they belong at UCSF doing this kind of work,” said Webb.
For Diego, who worked in the laboratory of Matt Jacobson, PhD, during the summer of 2021, the internship gave him the opportunity to work with research tools most college-level students don’t have access to. A child of immigrants and fluent in both English and Spanish, math was always his strong suit. Science captivated him in high school and a knowing home room teacher recommended he apply to BAYS.
Within a few weeks of starting his internship, Diego found himself computationally designing potential therapeutics, completely new to the planet, using an approach pioneered at UCSF. Crucially, he worked alongside scientists who looked and talked like him.
“We were all Latino, so we all spoke Spanish and I was much more comfortable [in lab],” he said. “It was incredibly important and inspiring that I could actually see myself in their position someday.”
Ce’Aysia had a similar experience of acclimating to science at UCSF when she met with other graduate students of color. “Talking to those people who look like me, who are now working in the medical field, it made me feel more comfortable and not alone, because they experienced the same things as me,” she said.
To maximize the benefit that BAYS could have for Ce’Aysia and Diego, however, Webb wanted to ensure that the program’s mentors were themselves prepared to guide their interns.
Inclusivity training for mentors
In founding BAYS, Webb realized its mentors needed a deeper understanding of how to work with students who are often the first in their family to graduate from high school. He drew on lessons learned in a UCSF DEI course led by D’Anne Duncan, PhD, and collaborated with former BAYS mentor, Julian Harris, PhD, as well as the UCSF Office of Career and Professional Development, to produce a two-day training session for mentors.
The training teaches mentors to provide the interns with active educational experiences, including opportunities to present their research to lab mates and fellow interns. It also includes aspects of inclusive mentorship, cultural competency, and methods to instill a growth mindset in learners, which Webb learned from his own PhD mentors, Brian Shoichet, PhD, and Aashish Manglik, MD, PhD.
BAYS’ holistic mentoring has been invaluable to building Ce’Aysia’s confidence and helped her succeed in the internship. Her mentor taught her how to use specialized software to analyze her lab data, and her big take away from the experience was that making mistakes is okay. “Even people who work their whole lives to learn a certain topic still make mistakes,” she said.
Harris, who now teaches at the University of Delaware, was keen to ensure his instruction hit the mark with Ashley, an intern in BAYS’ first cohort, with sensitivity toward “what Ashley knew and what she didn’t know already,” he said. He designed experiments that were appropriate for her abilities and provided worksheets and articles to round out the experience.
“All of these are ways of intentionally being inclusive when it comes to a mentor-mentee relationship,” said Harris.
Longitudinal investment in students
Even after students finish the internship, BAYS continues investing in their success, starting with a three-month college application boot camp. The college applications process is quite intensive, and students often don’t have anyone to turn to for guidance.
BAYS program administrators Marissa Lee-Baird, MS, and Emma Gunderson, from the Department of Pharmaceutical Chemistry, work to provide interns with the resources to pay for college applications. They also take care of administrative tasks for BAYS, minimizing Webb’s time away from his graduate work and ensuring that BAYS will continue after he graduates.
The BAYS team helped Ce’Aysia apply for a QuestBridge scholarship, which puts students in the running for early acceptance at many of the nation’s top private universities. Students who receive a QuestBridge scholarship are pre-approved for up to $200K in scholarships to any university they match with. Ce’Aysia is one of their finalists.
Now a first-year student at the University of California, Irvine, Diego enjoys video chatting from his dorm room to talk to former mentors and mentees about adjusting to new environments. He wants to pursue a doctorate in a yet-to-be-determined field of medical research. “I really want to combat disease,” he said. When the time comes, he plans to get in touch with BAYS yet again for help applying for graduate school.
Building a pipeline for UCSF
While it remains to be seen if Ce’Aysia will catch the research bug or stick with her plan to go into veterinary medicine, BAYS has enabled her to explore all possibilities and prepare for college. Diego, on the other hand, has set his sights on getting the “fancy Dr. title,” as he jokingly puts it.
BAYS has also created a bridge for students with PhD aspirations, like Diego, to potentially return to UCSF after college for the next stage of their scientific career. This could include applying directly to graduate programs like the very one that Webb will soon complete, or the UCSF Post-baccalaureate Research Opportunity to Promote Equity in Learning (PROPEL), a program that further prepares college graduates for research careers.
“One day, UCSF can reap the benefits of this work,” Webb said, though his focus remains fixed on outcomes for the students. “We take a service approach [for BAYS participants]. What can we, as an institution, do to invest in these individuals, not how can we extract value from these people. We’re here to teach, mentor, develop, and invest in these youngsters.”
About the School: The UCSF School of Pharmacy aims to solve the most pressing health care problems and strives to ensure that each patient receives the safest, most effective treatments. Our discoveries seed the development of novel therapies, and our researchers consistently lead the nation in NIH funding. The School’s doctor of pharmacy (PharmD) degree program, with its unique emphasis on scientific thinking, prepares students to be critical thinkers and leaders in their field.