Open-Door Policy: Keystone Symposia Works to Ensure More Minority Scientists Can Access Career-Advancing Life Sciences Research and Networking Opportunities

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Dr. Cherie Butts, a researcher and drug reviewer in the Office of Biotechnology Products at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, enjoys her job as a scientist so much that she often prepares for the next day s projects the night before. "Some experiments can take three to four days and some can take weeks," she says. Butts, whose research focus is to decipher how steroid hormones modify immune responses during disease in an effort to develop better therapeutic strategies, feels that one of the few things lacking in her satisfying career is more colleagues of color.

According to a 2006 National Science Foundation study, African-Americans, Hispanics and American Indians make up only 2.65 percent, 3.53 percent, and 0.59 percent, respectively, of life sciences academics at four-year institutions. Precise numbers are not available, but advocates agree minorities are also underrepresented as industry researchers who work outside of academia. Students from these underrepresented communities sometimes leave graduate school or post-doctoral programs because they feel socially isolated or unable to find mentors.

The lack of biologists and other scientists from these ethnic groups is a threat to America's public health and national economy. Many diseases like AIDS, juvenile diabetes and hypertension are running rampant in these communities. Finding effective treatments will require scientists who understand their patients' culture and lifestyles.

Butts, who earned degrees at Johns Hopkins University and the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center/UT Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, believes her career began to soar when she was chosen as an inaugural Keystone Symposia Fellow. The program allowed her to establish key relationships with other professionals and researchers in her discipline. Based in Colorado, the Keystone Symposia in Molecular and Cellular Biology is a nonprofit organization that sees itself as "a catalyst for the advancement of biomedical and life sciences by connecting scientists within and across disciplines at conferences and workshops."

The goal is to create a scholarly, yet informal, social environment conducive to information exchange, generation of new ideas and acceleration of applications that benefit society. For more than three decades, Keystone has organized on average 55 international scientific conferences per year on subjects ranging from cancer and infectious diseases to genomics and biochemistry. It sponsored, for example, the first open research meeting on MDS in the 1980s. Hundreds of graduate students, post-doctoral fellows and early-career scientists flock to these meetings for the unique opportunity to cross paths and build relationships with world-renowned scientists presenting peer-reviewed research.

The conferences are where research agendas are set and careers can be made, and Keystone has pledged to bring more African-American, American Indian/Alaska native, Hispanic and native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander scientists and researchers into the fold.

Butts recalls that her first Keystone meeting in February 2007 provided her with access to research and opportunities that would normally be out of reach for a beginning scientist. "It's like a small meeting with the giants in your field," she says, noting that the chance to publicly ask research-related questions made her more visible and allowed her to collaborate with leading experts.

The Keystone Symposia is working to improve the participation of, and focus on, minorities in the life sciences field through efforts that include providing scholarships that enable budding scientists to attend meetings. It also maintains partnerships with organizations such as the Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS). Its future goals include developing a nationwide database to connect underrepresented minority professionals in the field. …