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Executive Director’s Corner: Going Back to School with Confidence

Going Back to School conjures images of tests, homework, reviewing notes and reading textbooks. For me, it also conjures up my personal narrative of failed exams and retaking courses since my previous college grades were not stellar. I had an ignominious start to my undergraduate career. My mother invested in me. She was all in. It seemed that she may have been the only one to believe in my success, holding faith in spite of my grades. She only made it to the 9th grade, and my father up to the 2nd grade. I was the one who was supposed to be successful; however, my grades and the voices from critics indicated that, perhaps, I should switch to a field less rigorous than science.

The presence of a mentor is absolutely key in everyone’s biomedical career journey. I was fortunate to find a Freshman Chemistry Professor at Southern University, Dr. Mildred Smalley, who noticed my poor performance in her first Chemistry exam of the semester. She realized, at the time, my algebra skills were poor. She encouraged me to visit her office hours, not only for Chemistry tutoring, but also to get my algebra skills up to par. I mentioned to her that I had serious doubts of whether I had the necessary academic background or intellect to continue in a science major. Critics continued to tell me that science was not for me and it would be impossible for me to graduate. If I didn’t have the necessary high school course work, I would not be successful at the university level.

To make a long story short, I was able to turn things around because one mentor believed in me. She did more than get me out of the ‘stinking-thinking’ of my own doubt. She empowered me to dream beyond my beliefs, and beyond the dreams of my parents. Daily, she mentioned the importance of pursuing a PhD. With her guidance, I graduated from Southern University with the highest GPA in my major. I went on to complete my PhD at Louisiana State University, where I had the top grades in the majority of my classes. I found that as I stepped out in faith and committed to pursuing a dream of academic success. I was fortunate to continue to find mentors along the way.

As I travel throughout the United States to visit regional and local biomedical networks, e.g. IDeA Networks of Biomedical Research Excellence (INBRE) states (Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, South Dakota, Kansas, Louisiana, South Carolina, Nebraska, Puerto Rico), Diversity Program Consortium BUILDs (Portland State BUILD Exito and California State University Long Beach), and Historically Black College/University (HBCU).  I meet students who share their stories. I hear of nontraditional students returning to school, first generation college students who have worked on farms bucking hay in the summer before attending college, or before their opportunity to do biomedical research in the INBRE consortium. I have also been fortunate to meet highly talented students who are dyslexic, but have found a way to succeed in biomedical research and STEM. Since meeting with thousands of students in underserved communities who have a resiliency for success, my faith in the United States biomedical research workforce is stronger than ever. NRMN is now teaming up with the majority of INBRE states, to help individuals find mentors and network, in order to help them navigate through their biomedical career.

As I reflect on the students who are joining NRMN from all parts of the United States, I realize that my story is not that different from the stories of current students and trainees. NRMN, as part of the Diversity Program Consortium, is a game changer. Trainees have the opportunity to find mentors and transition successfully to their next career stage. As I glance over the horizon of the U.S. biomedical landscape, I am confident that there will be discoveries to treat the deadliest of diseases within my lifetime. There is a new generation of diverse biomedical students who are resilient and well-trained, with their networking potential in the thousands. They are relentlessly pursuing their dreams, the dreams and hopes of their parents, and of their mentors – for them to become biomedical scientists and to perform research on the cures ailing their communities.

NRMN scours the country in search of students and trainees in need of mentoring, professional development, research resources, and networking. It is not just my dream, but the mission of NRMN to reach thousands of students and biomedical research throughout the U.S. With the best minds working together, we may tackle human diseases to find cures; especially so, as diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular diseases disproportionately effects communities that have been traditionally underserved. Now, when I think of the beginning of the fall semester, I envision thousands of diverse trainees rising to the challenge of going Back to School.

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