July 27, 2015

Leading by Example: Inspiring Young Minds while Fostering Diversity in Biomedical Sciences

by Matheus Victor


Growing up in Brazil, I was considered white. Even on my birth certificate, my race is listed as white. It wasn’t until I moved to St. Louis that I fully realized that being white in Brazil didn’t make me white in America.

My family moved to Florida when I was a teenager, and I attended a predominately Hispanic High School in which Caucasians were the minority. After graduating from college also in Florida, I moved to New York and lived in a neighborhood predominantly populated by immigrants from the Dominican Republic, where once again being a Latino immigrant was the norm. When I started Graduate School at Washington University in St. Louis, my classmates were keen to notice all the little traits that made me different from them because I was Latino. For the first time in my life, my race made me stand out. In the years since, I experienced the polarizing power of St. Louis, which makes small differences about our ethnicity or citizenship become very salient, not just to others, but to ourselves as well.

Suddenly, I was the student representative for all things Latino. At first I couldn’t help but think that surely they could find someone else better suited for this role, after all I was a really lousy Latino; I speak Portuguese and not Spanish, I’m not a great soccer player and I don’t even know how to salsa. But with time, I started to grow into this role and understand my responsibility as a minority in the fight for racial equality. I became the president of the Graduate Association of Latin American Students (GALAS) in the Division of Biology and Biomedical Sciences (DBBS) at Washington University in St. Louis, and with the incredible support of my peers and the DBBS Office of Diversity, the group began to advocate for Latino students in our medical campus and joined forces in the many ongoing efforts to diversify our school’s scientific community.

This past June, GALAS joined the student-leaders from the Association of Black Biomedical Graduate Students (ABBGS) to organize a one-day training initiative called the Junior Scientist Institute (JSI). This annual program is aimed at providing local middle and high school students from underrepresented backgrounds with the opportunity to spend the day at Washington University School of Medicine conducting scientific activities and interacting with graduate and medical students from similar backgrounds.

This year, JSI hosted 23 high school students from the Washington University College Prep Program, directed by Leah Merrifield, assistant vice chancellor for community engagement, for a day packed with hands-on research experience. To my colleague, Jabari Elliott, the president of ABBGS and a Ph.D. Candidate in Biochemistry at Washington University, the “key focus was to prove to them that science is accessible to everyone regardless of ethnic or financial background" and I believe we did just that. This year’s Junior Scientist Institute included a tour of the Washington University Institute for Minimally Invasive Surgery (WUIMIS) and of the McDonnell Genome Institute at Washington University. In addition, students were introduced to careers in biomedicine with talks from graduate students, medical scientist training program students, and post-doctoral fellows, participated in live scientific demonstrations and even performed their own DNA extractions.

At the end of the day, as I thanked the students for their participation, I also offered, to those who may be interested, my help in finding additional opportunities to gain research experience. As the room filled with applause, intensified by students celebrating the end of an exhausting day, two students who were seating in the front row looked at each other and gasped with excitement. Sure enough, they both emailed me the next day holding me true to my offer. I met with them a week later, to discuss their scientific interests, and help them prepare their curriculum vitae to apply for volunteer positions in different laboratories at WUSM. I also had the privilege of meeting their parents and discussing with them my own path into scientific research, which also began with a volunteering position in a research lab. To all of us involved in JSI, the program is a medium to reach young minority students and to spark interest in science but to a few of the students participating in JSI, it may very well be the venue to the beginning of their own scientific careers.

I entered graduate school to earn a Ph.D., but graduate school also gave me a voice, a platform to help and inspire others, to find my passions, and to gain a social consciousness. We each have our paths, and the issues that affect us may be different, but no deed is too small if everyone is contributing to improve the world we live in.

The partnership between the College Prep Program and the Junior Scientist Institute was orchestrated by the WUSTL chapter of the Edward A. Bouchet Graduate Honor Society, which through its fellows promotes service and advocacy for students who have been traditionally underrepresented in the academy.

Matheus Victor is a National Science Foundation Fellow, an Edward A. Bouchet Fellow and a Neuroscience Ph.D. Candidate at Washington University in St. Louis.