Diversifying the physician-scientist pipeline on a grand scale
This November, Olujimi Ajijola, MD, PhD, associate professor, Medicine-Cardiology and Neuroscience Interdepartmental Program at UCLA, was selected for the inaugural cohort of Chan Zuckerberg Science Initiative (CZI) Science Diversity Leadership Award, in partnership with the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM).
Dr. Ajijola, a cardiac electrophysiologist, is one of 25 award winners, “who through their outreach, mentoring, and teaching—have a record of promoting diversity, equity and inclusion in their scientific fields,” according to the announcement.
He will use the $1.15 million grant over five years to realize his project, “Rethinking the Physician-Scientist Training Paradigm to Enhance Diversity.”
“Being a person of color, it is not uncommon to be the only person from an underrepresented group meetings or discussions relating to science and medicine,” Dr. Ajijola says. “It's really been a passion of mine to look at my path and the mentorship that I feel fortunate to have received, and see how I can help address the issue of underrepresentation in medicine and science, and in particular physician-scientist training.”
As it stands, the most common route for becoming a physician-scientist, or a physician who devotes major components of their professional efforts to research, is to commit at the start of medical school to getting both a Doctor of Medicine degree and Doctor of Philosophy degree. This track typically takes 7-8 years. Importantly, undergraduate students of color may face barriers that impact competitiveness for such dual degree programs that relate to finances, mentorship, exposure to research, race, and other factors. Providing additional opportunities for formal research training during postgraduate medical training and even in the early career faculty stage can attract diverse talent into the physician-scientist pipeline.
The David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA has a unique model with the Specialty Training and Advanced Research (STAR), which provide additional routes of entry into the physician-scientist training pipeline.
“Opening up multiple entry points into the pipeline will not only help diversify the physician-scientist workforce, it will also improve access for people to address the national decline in physician-scientist trainees which threatens a critical component of the biomedical research workforce,” Dr. Ajijola, associate director for the STAR program says.
What makes this model more equitable, diverse and inclusive, is that it allows for training at the residency or fellowship level, which enables trainees to develop a deeper understanding of science, medicine and their career trajectory in the process of obtaining second advanced degree.
The training program also provides research mentorship and laboratory guidance, near peer mentorship, a strong sense of community, and monthly seminars on grant writing and career development.
“What will be challenging with this grant is fixing a systemic issue,” Dr. Ajijola says of the lack of diversity and national shortage of physician-scientists. “What I’m hoping to do is use this award as an opportunity to engage key national stakeholders and leverage various networks to start to make a difference by expanding access into the physician-scientist training path. The funds will also aid in protecting my time to work on these important initiatives.”
Dr. Ajijola says the “diversity tax,” also referred to as “minority tax,” a phrase used to describe extra work and uncompensated duties that people of color are often asked to perform to enhance diversity efforts, is a challenge he aims to also use the grant towards.
“If you take it down to simple biology, we know that genetic diversity is important for the survival of a species,” he says. “In very much the same way, having diverse opinions, diverse thoughts, diverse experiences – I think only helps to strengthen who we are as a biomedical research workforce.”
Dr. Ajijola says culturally competent care equal better care for patients.
“Just because you have diversity, doesn't mean you have equity. And just because you have diversity, doesn't mean you have inclusion,” Dr. Ajijola says. “I think that adding these two pieces to diversity only helps us get closer to that goal of inclusive excellence as a field.”
Read more about the CZI Science Diversity Leadership Awards.