Navigating a Neuroscience Career For Scientists of Color
ISHMAEL AMARREH: Hi, everyone. Good morning, good evening, and good afternoon, wherever you are joining us. My name is Ishmael Amarreh, and I am the Chief for the Workforce Diversity Program at the Office of Disparity Research and Workforce Diversity at NIMH. Thank you again, and on behalf of the National Institute of Mental Health, I want to welcome you to the 2021 Office for Research and Disparity on Workforce Diversity Webinar Series.
This is the third of our webinar series for this year. We offer the webinar series as an opportunity for staff and the public to learn about the recent scientific advances in sponsored research in key areas that our office is focused on which include minority health and mental health of sexual and gender minorities, women’s mental health and the mental health of people living in rural communities, and workforce diversity.
Before we start our webinar, I would like to go over some housekeeping notes. I want to let the participants know that you should be muted and only in listening mode and all of your cameras turned off. Please, if you have any questions, submit them via the Q&A box any time during the presentation. If you have any technical difficulties hearing or viewing the webinar please note those in the Q&A box and our technicians will work to fix the problem. You can also send an email to the email address you see on this slide. This webinar and all webinars in this series will be recorded and posted on the NIMH website for later viewing.
I also want to let you know of an upcoming webinar in this series. The next webinar will be on September 21st at 2:00 p.m. Eastern time, and it is titled Advancing Evidence-Based Interventions to Improve Access to Mental Health Services for LGBTQ+ youth.
Several research studies have shown disparities in funding for black and African American investigators. The slide you are looking at is of data that we have collected at NIMH for the last 12 years. First thing to note at the top of each funnel is the number of applications. We can see the large gap between white and black PIs applying for funding at NIMH, a more than 20 to 1 ratio of white PIs compared to black PIs. The rest of the funnel chart is standardized to put each PI on equal footing. How does each PI interact within our system or what percentage of the results in a hit.
This funnel chart demonstrates the flow of applicants through the application process. As you can see, the number of applications in each stage is indicated by the width of the funnel. These funnel charts show three stages in the process of submission, discussed rate and the funding rate. On average, what you see is white PIs submit 3.5 applications compared to 2.5 for black PIs. In addition, two applications are discussed per white PIs compared to one for black PIs.
Finally, there is almost a 3 to 1 ratio between white PIs and black PIs when it comes to applications funded per PI.
It is these three decision points together that contribute to the 20 versus 11 percent award rate disparity that we see in our portfolio, and it is because of this that we are presenting a speaker, Dr. Damien Fair, who is one of the 11 percent, and we would like him to give us an overview of how his career has gone in the last 20 years.
A little background on Dr. Fair. Dr. Fair is originally from Winona, Minnesota. He obtained his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1998 from Augustana College in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and his Master’s in Medical Science degree in 2001 from the physician assistant program at Yale University of Medicine. From 2001 to 2003 Dr. Fair participated as a physician assistant in the Neurology Department at the Yale New Haven Hospital under the direction of Lawrence Brass. This led him to pursue further education in neuroscience in the graduate program at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis under the primary guidance of Bradley Schlaggar and Stephen Peters.
Dr. Fair completed postdoc training at Oregon Health Science University with Joel Nigg and Bonnie Nagel where he spent 10 years as a principal investigator for the Developmental Cognition Neuroimaging Lab and was a champion for diversity, equity and inclusion. Dr. Fair is currently a co-founding director of the Masonic Institute for the Developing Brain, and a professor in the Department of Pediatrics at University of Minnesota Medical School.
Dr. Fair’s first research focus is on mechanisms and principles that underlie child and adolescent brain development. Dr. Fair’s work cuts across both human and animal models and non-invasive tools as a bridge between species. He has published more than 100 articles in high impact research journals including Nature, Neuroscience, Molecular Psychiatry and Neuron Plus One. His research has been funded by grants from the Gates Foundation, MacArthur Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, and he has an extensive international network of collaboration. Dr. Fair has received many awards for his work including the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers issued by President Obama at the White House.
Without further ado, I would like to introduce Dr. Fair, and Dr. Fair would like to be presented to us.
DAMIEN FAIR: Thank you, Ish, for the introduction. I am glad to be here and provide this talk. This is somewhat of a new type of talk for me. I have given similar lectures to students and trainees of color before, the very specific audiences, more inspirational type talks but not necessarily in this type of forum. These types of large forums in the past I have squarely mostly focused on my science, in part because mixing the two is often misinterpreted or, in my experience, it lessened the impact of the science in many minds’ eyes.
But I feel that over the last year or so there has been a palpable shift regarding such views and the urgency of improving diversity in neuroscience. Much of this shift has been driven by new arrivals in this space, our young and junior investigators who are in essence forcing us all to rethink our approaches to progress.
Last week was the #blacksinneuro week. It’s an effort at building community by some amazing junior investigators who are actively and really palpably changing the culture in real time, but the gist is that if our goal is to rapidly move on discovery we need to figure out how to diversify our workforce. And it is not all about altruism or doing the right thing or working to make things more equitable per se. That is all true, of course, as well. But probably the most important thing we can do to maximize our progress is to develop an environment where everyone can thrive.
Last year I won the MacArthur Award, and I was able to provide one quote that is a space to articulate this concept or this idea. I will just read it here.
“Every step towards a deeper characterization of brain function brings advances in health care, education, technologies, economics and other enhancements to our society that deeply touch our everyday lives. However, continued progress will not come with the homogeny of ideas, thoughts, education, experience and culture. We need to embrace our variability, our diversity, and provide access to this pursuit to all of the talents that exist in our society. It could be argued that the driving factor of discovery and advancement of early civilization has been the result of human variability where some outlier, oftentimes being of minority status, pushed the society in a way that no one could have ever imagined. Ironically, in the sciences our ability to proportionally value the importance of this principle has been limited. I am hopeful, at this critical juncture in our history, we can harness our privilege and awareness to embrace a change of course.”
There are a couple themes I am hoping will somewhat sink in here as this talk moves on, and that is about the fragility of success and the importance of maximizing probabilities. I want you to hold those in mind as we go forward. The only way I can think of to describe my philosophy towards how I do my work is to simply give you some of the nuggets of who I am and where I came from. How did I get to this point today, speaking to all of you? What is my journey?
My beginning was actually in Miami, Florida. I was conceived by a white mother and a black father. My father left us before I was born. My mother was a high school graduate and did what she could to get us by. She even drove herself to the hospital when I was born, breaking her water on the way. I don’t know much about my father and I don’t know, in my history, that I really cared much. I know that my mother tried to make it work, but in the end she moved back to Minnesota where she was able to start over when I was about age two.
So I have always called Minnesota home. That is where I’m from. She later married my stepfather, so for much of my childhood I had a two-parent home.
I do remember having difficulty with my race at a young age. We lived in a trailer park for many years in rural Minnesota where I would say the racial slurs, the fights at times were very nasty and probably more often than you would like. But there is no question that the exposure to those experiences would help me navigate some similar challenges that I would encounter later in life, even today.
My father put himself back into school to be a computer scientist and eventually landed a job at IBM in Rochester, Minnesota where we eventually were able to move out of that environment. He is now actually retired and building web pages for my lab.
I was not a good student. I had difficulty with emotion regulation—I don’t know if they called it that back then but it is today. I was once suspended from school. I wasn’t a bad kid, but there would be zero chance that any of my teachers or peers or anybody would think that I would be here talking to you today when I was a kid in middle school, or even probably in high school.
I was a good athlete. Right around the time before I went into high school I befriended a cluster of friends who were simply overachieving, and to speak of fragility, it just so happened that at that time in my city of Winona, Minnesota there was a booming company called Fastenal—some of you may have heard of it before—which the CEO was a large benefactor of my school and the city. It provided an opportunity to test the waters in science with this institute called the Minnesota Academy of Math and Science, where we were exposed to some of the early education pushes from Apple computers and the new techniques at that time, believe it or not, of DNA extraction with PCR. We got college credit. We were trained by PhDs. And because of only a handful of students actually even applying to this, and one of them being me despite my grades and challenges, we all got in.
So this experience no doubt set the stage for me being a scientist. There’s no question about it. And importantly, it gave me a leg up going into college where the preparation had me really beaming with confidence relative to my peers. And it highlighted for me in the clearest terms that preparation really builds confidence. I would say that it’s something I certainly still carry with me today.
The next stop in my journey was Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Folks always ask me how in the hell did you end up in South Dakota, and the answer to that is basketball. They gave me a full scholarship to play basketball, and really my life at that stage was all about basketball and it was much less about science. The kids and the students who are coming into my lab were undergrads; I wasn’t even remotely close, not even in the same distribution in the far end of the tail.
It was a full-time job, but it also taught me several lessons. Until college, I was a relatively introverted kid. If folks are out there who know me, they probably can’t believe that, but there were a few guys on my team who were just talkers. You could put them in any room at any time with anybody and they could just suck in the entire room. They were absolutely terrible at school, but I can tell you their ability to work and talk with people—I studied that skillset from them for years, and I definitely carried that with me as I progressed in my career trajectory.
Sports are mainly cyclical as well, so, many of the highs and lows, they are emotionally draining. The coaches used to try to keep us levelheaded by saying things like, act like you’ve been there. In some ways what they were instilling in us at that time was the reality that we shouldn’t always be surprised when we are successful. You are supposed to be successful. And mentally I carry that with me today. It helps me keep a level head at all times and with the winding road of being an academic.
My first real mentor was Dr. Gary Earl. This might be surprising a bit because he was my organic chemistry professor, and most people hate organic chemistry. While our relationship started off really rocky, it blossomed over time, and it really was an important time of my life. When I began his course, I didn’t really present myself in a manner that screamed success. I was slouching in my chair, I had my hat on backwards, wore baggy shorts. I also didn’t take any notes. That’s kind of how I did school. And he worried that I wouldn’t do well in his class.
Of course, later I took the first exam and I did fine. I did great, and he was confused at how I did it. He called me in his office and asked me how I did well, and of course a lot of this material I had had before. Again, it’s just that preparation provided me with a level of confidence that was hard for him to see. He later would write this in his recommendations, how that particular moment actually changed him. How he recognized his bias towards me as a black athlete, something he couldn’t have ever imagined himself doing until that exact moment.
From there he kept close tabs on me. He was one of those guys who could really see through me, particularly when I was messing up or getting distracted. He always pushed me to reach for higher goals, and he always used to talk about this idea of confidence and competence, and how they are two words that one needs to accomplish their goals. And he was right. Even to this day, I use this experience and this example to mentor my own students. His guidance really helped me track academics through time, and I really appreciate his push.
From there I ended up in Connecticut. I just by chance applied to this PA program at Yale University. I was going to go to medical school, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to do that. I followed some residents and I was like, I had better know; medical school is a big commitment. One night I was talking to a colleague and told him about a PA program, a Yale program, and I said I’ll apply. I did, and I got in.
One of the most palpable things that I saw when I moved to North Haven in that environment was the sheer number of black professionals around me. It was a completely new experience, and the reality is they were brilliant. That community, that culture really changed me. It is also where I met my wife, and she was ridiculously accomplished at that stage of her life. She was from Ethiopia. She had only been in the States since high school but had already written a book about overcoming violence against women and girls. I just learned the type of rigor required to be successful in that community, and seeing that level of excellence in folks that look like me really mattered.
I eventually entered the Neurology Department at Yale, as Ish was talking about, and I worked with Larry Brass, a cerebrovascular disease guy. I practiced for a while doing, in essence, stroke neurology. I even tried to write my very first review paper with Dr. Brass and he actually eviscerated my writing. In fact, he wouldn’t even read the paper because he laid out the paper on a table and just looked at the structure and he could see that the way I was writing was just writing what was easiest for me, and it wasn’t the right way to think about how to write.
In fact, it’s something I talk about with my students today, where I typically try to make them, as best I can, avoid starting with the methods section for a paper, which is usually where people start because it’s just the easier thing to do. And really, it’s tackling the stuff that’s hard first, which is an important lesson.
He gave me this book, and I actually give this book to a lot of my students, The Elements of Style. I am sure many of you have heard about it. He used to carry it with him in his pocket everywhere he went. It’s just that sense of being able to communicate and write and how important that was towards a strong trajectory, which was instilled in me at that time.
One of the research projects I did was with one of the residents who was using this crazy technique called fMRI to examine what’s called ocular dominance columns. You can see in the upper picture it’s how different spaces in the world, in your visual field, actually are represented in the brain. You can actually see this very specific technique, and we wanted to see whether we could see changes in this activity with this non-invasive technique called fMRI with ocular dominance columns.
We convinced the physician at that time, Bennet Shaywitz—many of you know him—to give us some money to do the experiment, with another little-known guy that many of you know named Todd Constable. Todd told us there was zero chance the experiment would ever work. He was right. But, like any good young scientists, we didn’t listen at all and we failed.
But that failed experiment changed my career because I knew at that moment that this is what I wanted to do, and that was it. I was going to do this. This is my career, and that is one of the reasons why I am here. It’s how failure can really matter, and how going for it can really change your trajectory.
And so I applied to the neuroscience program at Yale and I failed there, too. I was rejected. But I used that rejection to do better. What I did was I went to the offices of all those folks who rejected my application and I made them help me draft and craft my application for the next year. Now, I didn’t apply again at Yale, but I did get interviews everywhere I applied. Everywhere I applied I got interviewed and I got accepted in every single program. I didn’t change anything except for my approach to the application.
And now I use this exact experience in my grant writing. I am rejected all the time, but it doesn’t mean the ideas are bad. It sometimes means it just needs to be repackaged.
A few things that are really important for success. One is to build community; ask for what you want, don’t be shy. You have to learn how to communicate, how to write about your work, and for me rejection is really no more than a speed bump.
I next found myself in St. Louis where I decided to go study neuroscience at Washington University under Brad Schlagger and Steve Petersen. I also quickly found community with what was then called the Chancellor’s Fellows under my other mentor there, Sherry Matarro. And more than once did this community really save—and the mentor advocates really maintain—my trajectory.
There was a time that my wife was experiencing terrible backlash in her residence program—she was the only black woman in the program at the time—and she was the seed really that seeded a lot of color into that program. We almost needed to leave, but these folks really stepped in and fixed the dynamic. And this just highlights how fragile is the fragility of success, particularly for professionals of color. These kinds of examples just make it extremely salient if you just stop and take a look.
I can’t imagine a better landing spot in the situation for me scientifically than being at Wash U. I learned a ton about imaging technologies and how to apply new areas of math, and it really solidified my career. There were brilliant scientists, close friends, the environment. It was abundantly clear that the science simply cannot be done in a vacuum. In other words, the field requires and for real progress really requires collaboration. Nobody is an expert at everything, and you need to know how to collaborate, you need to learn how to pick your battles.
Over the years that expand the breadth of my work, it was clear that our institutions are not really maximally efficiently organized to leverage each other’s excellence. And so one of the things that I am actively doing at my new position at the Masonic Institute of the Developing Brain is really actively trying to change that and do that at the University of Minnesota.
With all that said, I would say that I really found my groove scientifically, and I think about how I pushed through a lot of things in terms of this bird watcher or educator named Dudley Edmondson who wrote this amazing book years ago that is now making a resurgence: Black and Brown Faces in America’s Wild Places.
I had the pleasure of going birding and talking with him earlier this summer here in Minnesota where I realized there are a lot of parallels in our respective fields and experiences of how we navigate a world where folks like you or me are most often the only person of color in the room. He recounts the sneers, the questioning, the backhanded comments, the aggressiveness when he was visiting various environments around the world exploring his trade. He remembers sticking out because of his color.
But his drive towards the science and discovery was so intense that he just blows right through it all, through all the noise. He can’t hear it, he can’t see it. He was just so engrained in the understanding of these creatures that he just was able to drown it out. I often find myself in the same mental state when I’m locked in my discovery phase.
After St. Louis I found myself in Ethiopia. The blue dot right over there on the right. My wife ended up after her residency having a chance to go there to do some specialized surgeries, and this is actually in her home country, and to do some training in how to do fistula repairs at the world-famous fistula hospital, and I went, too. My son was two years old at the time. I essentially wrote my dissertation in coffee shops in Addis Ababa.
The fascinating thing about Ethiopia is that everybody is black, so what a world! The whole idea of race and a lot of the struggles we have here with it is actually quite foreign there. Of course, there are other biases, but kind of immersing myself in this alternative culture was really eye-popping to me. I talked about my research in science with my father-in-law daily. He is a professor in education, and the perspectives and the angles with which to look at the data were completely different and really solidified for me how much we are missing based on just our narrow views.
So I put forth a couple things here. Again, I wrote my dissertation there but I learned a new culture, I learned a new language. I had some great coffee. I just think it is important that you experience these other, kind of very unique perspectives to maximize your idea structures. In fact, I have just got done talking with the dean here at the Medical School of the University of Minnesota and we both came to the same conclusion about how important it is to kind of immerse yourself in a completely different perspective and ask your questions from those angles. It’s just really important towards the work.
The next stop was Portland, Oregon. As Ish was saying, I initially trained under Joel Nigg and Bonnie Nagel. That is the place where I started learning the clinical aspects of the work of neuroscience, work that I was doing, so I could apply some of the techniques to these mental health disorders. But one thing you can start seeing across time here is that if you look at all of my prior mentors, there is not a lot of diversity. The truth is -- for all of us, right -- in fact, Sherry is probably the only one I would call my primary mentor that is a person of color.
One of the things I have always thought is very important is it’s important to go out and look for additional mentors, and at OHSU I did that. I latched onto a couple of folks at various times who really helped me navigate the environment. They have a wealth of knowledge, been there a long time, and I can’t tell you how helpful it is to break out of the traditional mentorship role and get into some professional mentorship, particularly with those who have similar types of experience and culture.
One of the things that these guys always stressed to me is like no taxation without representation. What I mean by that is that folks are typically going to want you to do everything that’s related to diversity if you are an academic. It is what it is. Oftentimes, if you are like me you want to help, but it’s a task that is just an additional burden, it’s an extra tax that exists if you’re a person of color and you are in the sciences.
Particularly, Charles said don’t do it all; you can’t. You want to focus on the things that really matter and that are sincere attempts, and it is not just talk. Oftentimes you go into meetings and—now this is not specific to the space, but—everybody has these great ideas, and poof! You leave the meeting and nothing happens. Avoiding situations like that is actually critical.
And then ask yourself will what you’re doing actually truly assist in your professional trajectory. Are you paid for it? Will it assist with promotion? You should ask for that if it is not. These guys really helped me build confidence because I kind of agree to everything, and these guys really helped me focus my efforts.
The one thing here about the makeup and environment of OHSU—which was another whiplash compared to my time in Ethiopia—is it’s completely opposite. There is very little diversity and there’s less diversity in the city and you really have to find it, and even at OHSU. And so one of the things I did as part of my startup package when I started my job there and how I went forward was to put together a couple programs to help start building some community for folks there.
One of those is called the OHSU Scholarship for Diversity and Inclusion in Research where we were recruiting new postdocs and underrepresented folks hopefully to become faculty. The other was the Youth Engaged in Science to build more interactions and connections with our research and the community. Both were very successful. But one of the things in how we set this up is related to this topic, which is you need to take care of your career first. You will never be more influential with regard to these topics than just being successful.
One of the things I did when trying to set up programs like this and trying to add to the culture and diversity at the university was to think strategically about how to make them go. One of the items was to identify—and I got super-lucky and was able to identify—some of the best people to help build these programs and maintain them and really help them take off like neuroscientists who are also interested in advocacy and outreach as career trajectories. And these folks exist, and if you put the power in their hands they can make things that are really great and also provide some training, and assist in their career trajectory as well.
Anita Randolph is actually now with me. Letisha Wyatt is now running these programs with a specialized position, a tenure-track position, at OHSU. Marguerite Matthews is doing her training at the NINDS and is just a force. So there are ways to do this stuff without jeopardizing your trajectory.
Another thing about this time that I learned which is maybe one of the most important is to get to know your program officials. Of course, there are many. There are a bunch of them that I have interacted with and have talked with who mentored me throughout various stages of my career who are incredible at the NIMH. They are not the only ones. There are even more. Getting to know your program officials is extremely important, and I strongly suggest you take advantage of their willingness to give you advice on how to move forward.
My last stop on my journey was coming back home to Minnesota where I now get to develop and run the new Masonic Institute for the Developing Brain, an effort that is university-wide trying to bring together the siloes around our university and really around the country, build a melting pot of expertise and speed up our area of discovery and development in policy, education and clinical practice.
The difficult part of my journey here and the last part I want to emphasize is that of course I came here right in the middle of the pandemic, which was stressful in itself. But probably the more stressful thing relates to the murder of George Floyd and all the difficulties that were occurring around that time. I bring this up because there are two salient examples that I think are quite salient with regard to the extra pressures for academics and black families and how important it is to take care of your family.
Here is my family. It’s an older picture. I have a boy who is now 16, a girl who is now 9, and my wife is in the middle. Coming here with my boy was difficult. We had a lot of difficult conversations about driving, how to respond to police officers. It is stressful and causes lots of additional anxiety, and there is a lot of pressure.
When we went to see the George Floyd Memorial my daughter, who was 8 at the time, was extremely nervous about it. We had long talks because she asked about whether we should have painted our faces white in case there were police there. Very challenging times. All these extra pressures because of our society and our structural issues that we are trying to deal with, and we just have to recognize that combatting these things in increasing numbers and what is shown as far as success rates for scientists of color, it’s multifactorial and it is going to take a big effort.
Here are the bullets I went through today. One is preparation builds confidence. Don’t be surprised at your success; you are supposed to be here. Confidence and competence; find your community; learn how to write and communicate; collaborate, collaborate, collaborate; be strategic in how you collaborate. Lose yourself in the science, experience other cultures and perspectives; find additional mentors, particularly those that share cultural background. No taxation without representation. Be sure to put on your own oxygen mask before you try to save everyone else. Please talk to your program officials early on and often. And we are all different. Mine is only one of many stories. It is not one-size-fits-all, so we have to recognize that.
Just one last story that I think is important, and I applaud some of the efforts that are going on to try to change the dynamic and geography of our space and why it is so important. The fragility of success, and maximizing the probabilities.
This is a picture of my son when he was young. When he was about four he met this guy on the right, Sammy. These guys are four years old. Sammy went up to his mom and he said I want to be American like Ermias. You can look at these pictures of Ermias, the little guy on the right. I was like what is it about Ermias that Sammy thinks that kid is more American than him? Why would this kid believe that? The answer, after talking to his mother and dad for a while and after being confused, is it was simply because at this young age of four, it’s 2008, because the new President was Barack Obama.
Now, first we all had a big chuckle and we laughed about all of this, but you can see how crazy this is, understanding that Barack Obama is the 44th President and we’re approaching 250 years in existence. You ask yourself how many times, starting at this young age, you have instilled that you are not American if you don’t look like the President.
Getting folks in high places, in leadership spots and people visualizing that—it’s kind of like I was talking about earlier—is extremely important, and this is just one example of that. You need to stay motivated, stay confident and you need to stay competent. Most importantly, we just need folks, particularly trainees, to just be who you are. You will likely make a difference already as you move up along the chain.
I am going to end there and just say thank you all for having me, and thanks for the opportunity to give the talk. I am happy for the discussion and to take some questions.
ISHMAEL AMARREH: Thank you, Damien, for sharing your story, the personal and the professional. I am sorry if people didn’t hear me at the beginning of the webinar. There was a garbage truck that came to my apartment and maybe people couldn’t hear what I said about submitting their questions. Please, if you have any questions, put them in the Q&A and I will tabulate those.
I have a couple of questions and discussion points that I want to raise with Damien, but I really want to thank him. He has hit every point that I could think of, and it was an honest and really personal story.
Damien and I know each other for more than 10 years and we have very similar backgrounds. We have children of the same age that look the same, and we have a boy and a girl. We both did neuroimaging. I met Damien when I was a postdoc and he looked like this rising star in the world that we worked in because we were both in neuroimaging, and I really looked up to him. Throughout my time and since then I have been following his research and work, and I think he is a tremendous asset to the community itself.
Damien, you raised a lot of good points, and I really think it is amazing that we can get this type of honest storytelling from someone like you. But there are a couple of things you said, and one thing that has been on my mind for a while, and I wanted to ask you how can we achieve this. This is the idea of building a community or cohort. Throughout your life story you have seen how strong the effect of a cohort and a group around you is, even if they are not part of your immediate lab but they are part of the bigger ecosystem that you live in. How do you think we can build these networks, or how can we become part of a cohort so we can be successful as people who are maybe not the typical people who would be in that type of science?
DAMIEN FAIR: I will say, of course, it all depends on where you are and how you start building some of those connections. Today maybe it’s going to be less so. I can tell you the kind of links I have made and the connections I’ve made simply from Twitter, on building community in neuroscience. It has been amazing. I can tell you that I am a proponent and have been attending and giving talks at some very targeted meetings that are for black professionals or particularly black trainees, and some of the trainees that have come into my lab have been. That is another way we often build community.
Here, one thing I brought Anita in to do was sometimes you have got to reach outside—I call it—the university island. You have got to reach outside university island to be able to find your niche. There is an amazing number of folks, business professionals, politicians and just community members who are right in your space and you don’t even know it, about nutrition and all these kinds of things. And one of the goals—and of course in the institute we have a lot of resources, but what Anita has been doing is kind of running around all over the city identifying those things to build community to help us drive some of the science.
I can tell you, without some of the social media and the links, it can be hard. It’s a search and it is an active search, and as it becomes more difficult then you start growing family.
I know there are some efforts—in fact, efforts that you were involved with—like First and things like that, which are kind of institutional changes that are going to be required to help build that community, because I do think it’s extremely important for people to be successful.
ISHMAEL AMARREH: I agree with you. I want to also share my experience. This is something that the community itself could also participate in building. Like you said, nowadays with the technology that we have, there are ways that we can connect with each other across campuses or even across different sciences. But I agree with you, and I really feel the same way you feel. Building a community or cohort that supports you, not only the science but in the general career trajectory that you want to be in in science is very important.
Another thing that you hinted at that is also maybe on the minds of a lot of people is this idea of learning how to say no. We get so many things on our plate -- you are kind of like only one in many rooms. There’s this taxation without representation idea you talked about. How do you know when to say no and what to say no to, and how does that come across in your career?
DAMIEN FAIR: It is a bit of a learned experience, and my guess is that everybody’s path is going to be somewhat learned. For me, it’s more about providing the advice so that you can learn more quickly. The gist is that there is a lot of goodwill with regard to changing the landscape that we are in. We are not lacking ideas, either. I think people have a ton of ideas that are all good.
But when push comes to shove, when you have really got to grind, that is where things start to separate. And being able to recognize the patterns where there is going to be some actual palpable outcome versus not is hard to figure out, but it is really important, trying to navigate when to say yes and when to say no.
The main thing I always say to everybody is the answer is always no if it’s going to interfere with your career trajectory, period. It’s always no. If it can help or if it is not going to interfere, then you should consider it. But if there is anything that interferes with your career trajectory you have got to say no.
But learning what that is, to avoid some of the window dressing, is difficult. It’s like pattern recognition to some extent. It’s something that is a learned experience. That’s probably the best I can answer.
ISHMAEL AMARREH: I will go to the question from the audience, and I’ll try to combine different questions that I think are in the same realm.
There is a question about culture and diversity and how does it add to neuroscience and other basic researchers, and how can different cultures within like underrepresented minorities relate to each other. So how can the experience of an African American scientist relate to that of a Latino? Do you have anything you can say about that?
DAMIEN FAIR: There are points in my lab where if you’re white you may be a minority. We have lots of Latino and black students and trainees. From what I have seen in my experience, I think the experience of Latinos is very similar to the blacks’ experience as far as like academic trajectories or being underappreciated. I have certainly seen it. In fact, in my talk last week at the Black Neuroscientists Journal Club I gave a clear example of where an amazing thought and idea and paper on functional fingerprinting in our day that was done by Oscar Dominguez, who was here from Mexico, has been completely lost in the ether. The original paper and the original idea from him is gone. He doesn’t get to the talks, he doesn’t get the new grants, he doesn’t get all the stuff on this topic. It’s the high-flying little paper that replicated the results later. That is problematic.
He is not the only one, of course, and that is not always going to be an underrepresented or black thing, but it is particularly salient and hugely meaningful for someone in that space.
As far as cultures affecting science, there are just some amazing examples. I was mentoring a student a while back who was doing some work in a lab on fear conditioning where you try to understand the nature of PTSD. What are the causes of disorders like post-traumatic stress? Typically, the models for this are you think of it in terms of war where you have lots of stress and then you are out of it, then you have PTSD and you have got to figure out how you cure that or fix it.
Well, there was a student who was from the inner city, an urban area, and she had an extremely difficult time growing up. A lot of it is probably your stereotypical idea of what it means to live in some of these very hard-to-live-in in inner cities. She came to the lab and she asked the question, what happens if the trauma never goes away, never stops. The reality is the PI looks at that question and says you’re right. That’s a great idea. What happens if the trauma just continues and you don’t get to move out or fly out of it?
That is just one example where it doesn’t even enter into the mind of the PI at all as a research question unless you have somebody with that type of experience that enters the room. This is just one example, and now there’s a whole new line of thought in that lab. It’s a whole new area of research that is extremely important particularly for folks that are here in our country.
That’s just one example of if you just come at things from different angles there are amazing ideas that are just sitting there that you will never see if you are locked in your lane.
ISHMAEL AMARREH: I totally agree with you. There’s a whole field of the philosophy of science and we could talk about this for hours, and Damien and I did that many times.
A couple other questions are in the realm of maybe people who are a little more junior than you are, graduate postdocs, how do they advocate for themselves. There are a couple of people asking how can we do that in a professional way that would not hurt our career but would also help, and not be silent. Like you said initially, you were shy. I was shy. I sometimes still don’t get up and advocate for myself even at this level of my career.
Any advice that you would give to younger scientists who are trying to do that?
DAMIEN FAIR: This particular question is an extremely difficult one when you’re young, but it relates to the idea of that confidence and competence piece that I talked about. You should feel comfortable standing up for yourself. That is definitely number one.
Number two, the question is, well, how do you go about it, and I think that is specifically what’s being asked. What I say -- and it’s one of the reasons why I talk about building professional outside mentorship, generating advocates and building a surrounding group of people that understand the perspective and can help you in case standing up for yourself kind of goes awry. Pinging it off them, asking whether this is the right way to say it, and thinking about it strategically to be able to do that.
That’s how I would answer that. That is my strategy typically. I bounce ideas off my other mentors and people that I trust and my advocates, and then—if you know me now, I don’t stay quiet—I tell people what I think. I think that particularly in our space it is very difficult to do, particularly when you are young, but I do think it’s important to do. You just have to protect yourself, and that would be my advice.
ISHMAEL AMARREH: Following up on that, there are several questions about mentors and how you can identify mentors or people you can reach out to, either within your institution or across. There is a specific question actually from one of my colleagues that asks how were you able to identify mentors within your previous institution. Any tips or key points that we should consider?
DAMIEN FAIR: Like I said, I am always evaluating and it’s like pattern recognition. When I meet with folks I often try to understand their personalities, try to think through what they have gone through. I ask them questions, I try to get to know them and then that is when I start reaching out. In fact, I have even done that here. I would say I’m a professor, I’m tenured, I am pretty far along, but I am still reaching out in the same way for new mentors.
Part of it is identifying folks you feel comfortable with. It doesn’t have to last forever; it can be short-lived. That’s okay, too. Sometimes just having coffee. But I usually try to get to know people and sometimes that can be anxiety-provoking, just reaching out, kind of cold-calling and saying, hey, do you want to have coffee.
But I can tell you getting over those fears and that anxiety can be very helpful in the long run because it just speeds up your maturation.
ISHMAEL AMARREH: Along that line there’s a question about how do you know who your program officers are, and I can answer that after you. There’s a lot of advice that we also give, if at least you are thinking about the grant process to know your program officer. How do you go about learning that skillset, and what would you say to people who are in that place right now, who are trying to figure out how to reach out to their program officer, these nebulous human beings that we don’t ever see?
DAMIEN FAIR: Exactly. I was very lucky in that I landed in a spot when this became a really important aspect of my career at OHSU with Joel Nigg, because he is a great communicator as far as the program and things like that and I definitely learned a lot from him on that front. We had some early grants together and I learned early, just kind of sitting on calls with my PI, about conflicts that I would never even otherwise think about.
I also reached out to even my prior mentors just to work through how the grant process works. That is one. And even with the program officers -- I don’t really do this anymore, but back then I asked more than once, working through and understanding step-by-step how decisions are made and everything. And even outside of just the science. It’s just like how does this thing work; it seems super-complicated. I don’t understand.
What I would say is jumping on these calls with your mentors would be number one that I would do. And actually, speak up, ask questions. They will answer. And number two is, in absence of that, if you don’t have that, I would say if you go to the website they have lists of all the program officers. I would bet—and I think I have done this before particularly when I’m going to other institutes that I haven’t been at. I would just cold call or email just to a random one and say I’m trying to do this; who do I talk to? They will respond and they will tell you, oh, that’s this person, because they know everybody.
Again, it’s kind of getting over the feeling or fear that these items that are somehow—I mean, that’s their job really. Getting over the fear that it somehow will be a negative impact on you. It is hard. It’s a weird thing. There’s this authority that has all the money and you’re scared to talk to them. But really, that is what they’re here for. They are here to help. If you just email them they will respond. I don’t think I have had anybody ever not.
ISHMAEL AMARREH: I agree with you and I would second that. I am a program officer for quite a while now, and like Damien said, we work for you. We get paid through your taxes, and we are actually responsive. The thing is sometimes we may not respond in the first day, but I always tell anyone who calls me or anyone who I interact with, just nag us. Don’t ever be afraid to be the squeaky wheel, contact us. And websites and FOAs have a lot of lists of names of people you can contact in your science. And sometimes not even your science, but they can direct you towards a place where your science is being funded.
So yes, I would say pick up the phone, email me or anyone at NIH. We are responsive. We may be a little bit slow because of the volume of technical assistance calls and emails that we get, but always call us.
Moving from that, we have a couple of questions that move into the big picture, institutional questions. Now that you are at this place where you’re starting a new institution and you are at a level where you are trying to do systemic change at these higher education institutions, what would be one or two things that you think would be the most important changes that institutions can make to promote diversity amongst science applicant student and should students be involved in this process?
DAMIEN FAIR: There are a lot of institution administration people that are not going to like to hear this, but I think that the best way to change this narrative inside institutions is to change the institutions. The reality is that, and again I’m talking about the promotion and tenure process first. The reality is that the promotion and tenure process is a little bit nebulous; there are lots of rules. But in the end, it is primarily about your success with grants, how many papers you have written and, depending on your track, how many classes do you teach and what your scores are. That is pretty much it.
They say all this other stuff matters, but in the end—I am a pattern recognition guy and I have not seen it. If you really want to change the narrative on this front, then I suggest that this whole line of how you promote with teaching and service and whatnot is to add DEI to the list for promotion. When I talk about saying no and making sure that you are not going to harm your trajectory, that’s part of it. Part of it is that you do all this effort, you put all this work in and it’s not actually even counted. Even though it says so on paper, it is not really counted for your promotion.
So I think if you institutionalize that—in fact, there are some universities that are doing it. I think Indiana University or Purdue University out of Indianapolis is doing that -- I can’t remember, I think that is the name—has added DEI on the list. Actually, that aspect is actually valued. If you do that, trust me, if it means to get tenure that you need to participate in improving DEI, it will happen.
But you have to change institutional structure. It can’t be all peripheral things trying to assist with the problem; it has got to be actually changing the root. That is just one example. But that’s it. I think there are aspects of our institutions that just need to be modified and that will speed it up quite a bit.
ISHMAEL AMARREH: Do you think students have a role to play in that? Should they advocate for themselves, or should there be a student-led movement, since these higher institutions are, quote, unquote “catering” or the customers of these institutions are the students themselves?
DAMIEN FAIR: Absolutely. To be honest, they absolutely are, and they are the ones who are by far the drivers of the change, at least that I am seeing. When the students organize and make demands, things change. We are definitely seeing it at our institution, and I see it all over.
And it’s for students, too. I think that how we measure success—again, this is something we talked about last week in Neuroscience Week, that our currency pretty much is grants, citations, big papers. Again, all this other stuff—you can do it and it’s not not important; it just doesn’t carry as much weight.
The question always is: is that how we should be -- and there are all these intricacies of that. Is that really how we should be measuring success? Is that really pushing us forward as fast as we want to go? And the answer for me is probably no. I mean, it’s what you have to deal with. It is what it is, and the students have to recognize that that is the environment we’re in. We can advocate for change, but we can’t forget that that is the environment we are in. I do think there are lots of things we can change, and those are just a couple.
ISHMAEL AMARREH: One last question has to do with your research. Someone here said that they have concerns about youth of color being misdiagnosed with disorders like bipolar, ADHD, ADD, when these youth are traumatized and lead to different childhood or family issues. This person would like to know if you are doing anything around these issues right now, or if you could point her toward something.
DAMIEN FAIR: We are, actually. In fact, when I started that Youth Engaged in Science program, I used to take all the professionals and get them off the university hill and we would set up these programs inside the black churches in Portland, and we would have childcare and the kids would go to do educational activities about the brain and the parents would stay up with the professionals and ask their questions in their environment. It was a fascinating learning experience on multiple fronts.
One of the stories was this woman -- and I think it was Joel who was up in front taking the heat. This woman gets up and says, I have a question. How in the hell does my kid have ADHD at school and then comes home and not have ADHD? I can’t have cancer at work and come home and then not have cancer. He’s like, yeah, that’s right, you can’t have that. And it is actually not supposed to be that way.
So we took that experience and went back to the lab, and there are a couple things. One is we are working on building a better biomarker for the disorder. That is a very difficult task. It’s more biology-based because of issues regarding heterogeneity and a bunch of complicated issues we’re going through.
But also it helps clinicians like Joel and many others better emphasize in the community how you are actually supposed to diagnose these disorders. You cannot have it at school and then not have it at home. That means you don’t have it. And making sure that the education of the school administrators and clinical professionals outside the basic universities who are really properly trained, making sure those things don’t permeate so far so that exact problem doesn’t happen.
That work is ongoing. It’s difficult because it is hard, but absolutely there is a lot of work going forward on that.
ISHMAEL AMARREH: On that note, and the garbage truck is back at my window and we are over 10 minutes, I want to thank Dr. Damien Fair again. For those people who have joined late, I want to let you know that this is being recorded and we will be posting on our website soon. Thank you again, all, for joining, and thank you, Damien, and everybody who joined. We hope to see you again soon.