Neuroscience is an elite field, calling to mind the names of formidable researchers and popular figures such as Sam Harris, Antonio Damasio, Aafia Siddiqui, and Oliver Sacks. It may be at least in part due to this perception of the elite nature of the neuroscientific fields that students hailing from disadvantaged backgrounds have been deterred from pursuing graduate studies in neuroscience.
NEURAL, the cornerstone effort of the UAB Neuroscience Roadmap Scholars Program, is moving to change this reality. NEURAL, which stands for “National Enhancement of Underrepresented Academic Leaders,” is an annual conference targeted toward trainees and graduate students in the neuroscience fields who are members of underrepresented groups. Bringing together students and trainees from inside and outside UAB, the NEURAL 2016 conference offers opportunities to present original research, and to interface with respected neuroscientists from across the country.
The Neuroscience Roadmap Scholar program and its flagship NEURAL conference were conceptualized by Farah Lubin, PhD, and Lori McMahon, PhD, who received funding on an R25 NIH grant in order to launch the program. Although the undergraduate programs which interacted with neuroscience at UAB included a diverse population of students, Lubin and McMahon realized that racial and ethnic minorities and those with physical or mental disabilities were still underrepresented at the graduate level. The UAB Neuroscience Roadmap Scholar program was created as a means to provide both incentive and support for graduate students who are racial or ethnic minorities, and/or who have a physical or mental impairment from a broad range of scientific fields, including chemistry, biology, and bioengineering, to pursue careers in neuroscience. The UAB Neuroscience Roadmap Scholar program is hugely supported by the Neuroscience community and faculty who serve as career coaches for the scholars.
The UAB Neuroscience Roadmap Scholar program held its NEURAL 2016 conference June 22-24 on UAB’s campus with opening ceremonies at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. Bringing together roughly 75 UAB students and 50 students from outside UAB, it offered not only insight into neuroscience career paths, but also professional development workshops on personal finance, electronic portfolios, successful paper submissions, and dealing with stereotype threat.
One of the tremendous offerings of the NEURAL conference is its ability to bring in renowned neuroscientists who offer unique perspectives. At the NEURAL conference in 2015, Roger Nicoll, MD, a professor at UCSF’s School of Medicine and recipient of the Gruber Prize in Neuroscience, discussed his struggles with severe dyslexia.
The NEURAL 2016 conference featured Gordon E. Legge, PhD, a professor of psychology from the University of Minnesota who heads the Minnesota Laboratory for Low-Vision Research. Author of more than 400 papers, and the recipient of a wide range of professional honors, including the Charles F. Prentice Medal from the American Academy of Optometry and the Access Achievement Award from the University of Minnesota, Legge himself is visually impaired.
Students and trainees, who participated in a faculty-judged poster session during the conference, were given the opportunity not only to hear from Legge and other distinguished speakers, but to interact with them one-on-one. Yisel Cantres Rosario, PhD, of the University of Puerto Rico Medical School, was one of the trainee participants. In a letter following the conference, she articulated the importance of the opportunities offered by the NEURAL conference. “I would have liked to participate in a small meeting like this when I was a graduate student,” she wrote. “I have participated in a good number of big meetings, but because of the amount of people attending those conferences, we dilute ourselves and are not able to interact with everybody as we did in NEURAL. I personally talked to all the keynote speakers opening new doors of communication, which is a critical component of my career, now that I am beginning as a post-doctoral. I came to Puerto Rico with a lot of ideas for my research and also to help graduate students from our institution, thanks to you. Congratulations to all for such a good meeting for underrepresented students! It means a lot for us and shows how much you care for your students.”
Lubin says that the gears are already turning in preparation for the conference’s third year. Thanks to institutional support, she sees the Neuroscience Roadmap Scholar program and the NEURAL conference flourishing well into the future and serving its critical mission to draw underrepresented graduate students and trainees into neuroscience. “You can’t model what you haven’t seen,” she says. “The more examples we put in front of students, the more we make it clear they have no excuse to not succeed.”