Minority Representation in STEM Fields

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People immigrating to the United States of America brought with them different cultural identities and life experiences all come together like a melting pot

United States as a “Melting Pot”

Indigenous peoples inhabited the land, that is now known as the US, many generations before Christopher Columbus arrived. These people were culturally and linguistically diverse and since the founding of the US in 1776, the number of languages, customs, and lifestyles in this land has dramatically increased due to constant migration to the US from all corners of the globe. This diversity gave rise to the US being called a “Melting Pot” – a metaphor for the different populations coming together to form one country. With this diversity though, comes discrimination, creating an environment that has been adversarial, and hardly a united and representative nation.

To acknowledge the different contributions of diverse groups in this country, a calendar of months to recognize diversity has been established. For example, February is African-American History Month, March is Women’s History Month, May is Asian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, September 15th to October 15th is Hispanic Heritage Month, and November is Native American Heritage Month. The majority of people whose heritage, culture, and value to this country should be recognized during these months are often overlooked, underrepresented, and under-appreciated. In addition to highlighting their achievements for one month, it is important to continuously recognize their voices and contributions. This article aims to stress the importance of representation and intersectionality, particularly in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields, and to celebrate those who have achieved success in their fields despite many obstacles.

Identity and Intersectionality

Coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw, intersectionality is the concept of overlapping social identities leading to a more severe form of discrimination. As an example, look at the colored circles to the right. Each one could represent an element of discrimination such as race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability, class, age, etc. In the top left, there is one yellow circle. Imagine this circle represents women (gender). This represents one possible layer of discrimination. To the right, the overlapping yellow and pink circles represent increasing layers, or intersections, of identities. The yellow circle again represents women, and the pink circle may represent African-Americans. Women

Image Credit: Rachel Cherney

Diagram of Intersectionality where each colored circle represents different element of discrimination

encounter one dimension of discrimination (gender), as do African-Americans (race). However, being an African-American woman means their burden is now two-fold: they have two dimensions of discrimination, being a woman and being African-American. As a person has more dimensions (as seen in the two figures in the bottom) that do not fit with the dominant social norm, those dimensions add up to increasing amounts of discrimination. Identity and intersectionality can be especially challenging for people who have combined ancestry. Often, people don’t know with whom or how they should or can associate, leading to an increased identity anxiety and discrimination.

It is important to recognize and understand the concept of intersectionality to realize that discrimination is complex to rectify. However, it is crucial to try to eliminate the inequalities that come forth from discrimination and intersectionality since inequalities that lead to oppression can restrict the future and potential of underrepresented groups. The more we help each other, the better the world becomes for us.

*Race is used above because it is commonly used to discriminate, although race is a social construct and has no scientific basis. For a distinction between race and ethnicity, click here.*

The Lack of and Need for STEM Workers

STEM jobs drive the global economy by being one of the top sources of innovation and are growing faster than any other public or private sector in the US. Within the next 10 years, there will be over 1 million jobs in STEM available, however there are not and will not be enough scientists to fill all of the positions. Temporary residents (including international students) are immigrating to the US to fill this gap through various visas (F1, J, H1B, etc.), even though we have enough students who could someday fill the gap.

Underrepresented groups embody roughly 36% of the population in the US, yet represent less than 20% of the STEM workforce. Due to discrimination (particularly intersectionality) and lack of representation, support, and youth awareness, the potential of our minority peers in STEM has been largely untapped.

https://www.nsf.gov/statistics/2017/nsf17310/digest/early-career-doctorate-holders/characteristics.cfm

Proportions based on U.S. citizens and permanent residents with known race or ethnicity. Graph clearly depicts the gap between the percentage of Doctoral degrees in Science and Engineering earned by Whites and Minorities SOURCE: National Science Foundation, National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, Early Career Doctorates Survey pilot study, 2015.

Aside from the lack of minority students earning STEM degrees, their path to success gets more challenging following graduation. They enter the workforce but don’t necessarily stay because of constant threats they face, may they be racial bias, stereotype threat, microaggressions from colleagues, or just lack of cultural knowledge among mentors and colleagues. Boosting diversity can help boost the status of underrepresented groups, and get rid of threats minorities face in the workforce. It is a lot easier to see yourself as a scientist if you see others that share your experiences or culture. Since there are so few underrepresented students in Master’s and PhD programs in STEM, the challenges are compounded. If no one shares a lifestyle like yours, how can you relate?

The general population has a particular proportion of women and minorities, but that proportion is underrepresented in STEM. Since STEM fields and the world we live in are multidimensional, the people working in those fields should represent that multidimensionality. It also brings us together as a community.

Diversity Enhances Innovation

Diversity allows for new interpretations and exchanges of ideas and data. This encourages innovative and diverse ways of thinking and tackling problems leading to a greater likelihood of coming up with real solutions. The different viewpoints (based, in part, through individual differences in experiences) that each individual brings to the table helps foster teamwork and collaborations. If all people are from the same background and same education, they might all look at a problem the same way. Diversity helps us solve a common problem by bringing different ideas into the dialogue. For example, women and men differ anatomically and physiologically and without taking this difference into account when designing products, a product may not be helpful or may even be harmful to the user. Women on average are shorter than men, so when driving, generally are physically closer to the steering wheel. When airbags were first designed, this height difference between men and women wasn’t taken into account, and women experienced a more forceful impact from sitting closer to the steering wheel. This resulted in more female deaths by airbags than accidents.

Another more serious example is the creation and production of drugs/medications. Clinical trials are often homogeneous and fail to include adequate numbers of women as they are primarily tested on men. Due to physiological differences between men and women, some of these drugs can be helpful to men, but not to women, or could be harmful. This is also relevant to ethnicity and ancestry. Certain groups of people are more prone to certain diseases or have different physiology from another group, and if a medication was cleared for one of those groups, it doesn’t mean it will work well for the other.  Considering the face of the US population is changing and by 2042 African-Americans and Latinos are predicted to be the majority minority (over 50% of the US population), it is critical to include underrepresented groups in clinical trials that lead to drug development and application.

Getting Minority Students into STEM Fields

To fill the available positions now and in the future, it is important to reach out to students of all backgrounds and abilities, starting at a young age, and to let them know what opportunities are available to them. It is also important to spark an interest and passion for science in these students, and to help and support them as they advance through their education. Allowing resources to be available to all students of all backgrounds is essential. Read a previous article about the divide between rural and urban areas in the US due to lack of internet access, highlighting the effect of inconsistent distribution of resources.

Resources and education play a critical role in the development of STEM students and statistics show that Americans in general don’t perform well in STEM fields and are consistently behind much of the world. Thus, the education of these fields needs to be reexamined. At the University of Maryland – Baltimore County (UMBC), president Dr. Freeman Hrabowski has created an environment that fosters excellence in STEM skills, guiding UMBC to be the leading university in the country to produce African-American students that earn PhD and MD-PhD degrees in STEM fields. He restructured the way STEM classes were taught and created four pillars of STEM education to “get underrepresented students to the top”. These pillars began as a way to help the most underrepresented students succeed in STEM, and by helping and redesigning education for the most underrepresented students, students of all backgrounds at UMBC are now more successful STEM fields.  Dr. Hraboski’s four pillars “empower students to take ownership of their education and love to learn,” while fostering a collaborative environment. The Meyerhoff Scholars Program at UMBC was created to use the four pillars of STEM education with underrepresented groups and UNC has worked with UMBC to create a similar program, called Chancellor’s Science Scholars Program. Hopefully, more programs like these will arise around the country, and STEM diversity will increase, along with the number of successful students in STEM fields.

Attitudes Towards Minorities in STEM Fields

Dr. George M. Langford, a previous UNC faculty member and advocate for minorities in STEM fields, wrote about the very topic, asking educators to step up and recognize what needs to be done for underrepresented students:

“As the demographics in the United States evolve, we as educators must work to increase the number of minority students in these disciplines, disciplines where they remain underrepresented. Efforts have been underway to improve minority representation for several decades… and there has been improvement, just not as much as we’d like. Many are imminently qualified, but denied for discriminatory reasons.

Though there is much work to be done to attract minorities to and propel them in the STEM disciplines, I believe the silver bullet is a conscious effort on behalf of all educators to provide passionate mentorship to prospective scientists.

By comparison, the scientific community has made progress but much change is needed before we will see the numbers improve to the extent that will have real impact. Racial bias lingers and differences in the day-to-day experiences of minority scientists persist. Stereotype threat continues to derail careers and compromise performance. Even the best mentors fail to realize the need to provide culturally competent guidance to ensure minority postdoctoral fellows who leave their labs start their careers with the same level of productivity as their white counterparts. These challenges are urgent and must be addressed sooner rather than later to maintain our country’s competitive positioning in the global community.”

To support your peers at UNC in STEM Fields, look to join or support:

  • BGPSA – UNC Black Graduate and Professional Student Association
  • FNGC – UNC First Nations Graduate Circle
  • IMSD – UNC Initiative for Maximizing Student Diversity
  • MSC – UNC Minority Student Caucus
  • SACNAS – UNC Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics in Science
  • Stem Pride of the Triangle – Research Triangle STEM LGBTQ+ group
  • WINS – UNC Women in Science

Unsung Minority Heroes in STEM

To recognize the unsung minority heroes in STEM fields from the U.S. and around the world, below is a list of those heroes whose innovations and contributions have improved the world we live in. Most importantly, this list is to emphasize that everyone is capable of achieving greatness, if only given the opportunity. One characteristic to note about the unsung heroes is that, besides being successful citizens and scientists, a majority of them were also civil rights activists.

Notable Minority Women in STEM Fields

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Former NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson is seen after President Barack Obama presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2015 Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

  • Nita Ahuja – Indian surgeon; 1st female Surgeon in Chief at Yale
  • Lori Alvord – Native American surgeon
  • Farida Bedwei – Ghanian software engineer with cerebral palsy
  • Elizabeth Blackwell – English physician; 1st female Doctor of Medicine
  • Marie Curie – Polish physicist; 1st woman to win a Nobel Prize, 1st person to win two Nobel Prizes, and only woman to hold Nobel Prizes in two different fields (Physics and Chemistry)
  • Wanda Diaz Merced – Deaf Puerto Rican astronomer
  • Rosalind Franklin – English scientist; work led to elucidation of DNA structure
  • Temple Grandin – Autistic American animal behaviorist
  • Grace Hopper – American Naval Officer, mathematician, and computer scientist
  • Mae Carol Jemison – African-American engineer and astronaut; 1st female African-American astronaut
  • Katherine Johnson – African-American NASA mathematician
  • Hedy Lamarr – Austrian inventor; laid foundation for Bluetooth and GPS
  • Ada Lovelace – English mathematician; laid foundation for computer science
  • Jane Luu – Vietnamese-American astronomer; discovered and characterized the Kuiper Belt
  • Maryam Mirzakhani – Iranian mathematician; 1st woman and Iranian to win the Fields Medal
  • Florence Nightingale – English surse/statistician; laid foundation for the field of Nursing
  • Sally Ride – LGBTQ+ American astronaut; 1st American woman in space
  • Dorothy Vaughan – African-American NASA mathematician
  • Ada Yonath – Jewish-Israeli biochemist; pioneered the structure of the ribosome
  • Lydia Villa-Komaroff – Biochemist; 3rd Mexican-American woman in the US to receive her PhD in STEM

Notable Minority Men in STEM Fields

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Carlos Juan Finlay

 

 

Peer edited by Nicole Smiddy and Gowri Natarajan.

 

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CRISPR-edited Plants and Regulation

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Pictured above are young tomato plants.  Some vegetable plants (such as corn and  sugar beets) are being genetically engineered to generate tastier and larger quantities of food

If you wanted to get a genetically modified organism (GMO) through the regulatory process, you can expect to dish out about $35.1 million and wait at least five and a half years. This doesn’t even include the money and time it takes to discover and develop a new crop. It’s no wonder then that the agricultural biotechnology industry was historically dominated by big agribusinesses that have had the resources and power to get over this regulatory hurdle. This is changing with the introduction of new techniques such as CRISPR that are cheaper to use and are starting to bypass expensive regulation.

 

Many criticize the existing regulatory process, which was last updated in 1992, as being unreasonable considering the nature of the new technologies that have emerged. The USDA recognizes this and released a statement just last week saying they will not regulate plants developed through genome editing. The responsibility of regulating crop biotechnology is shared between the EPA, FDA and USDA, although the EPA and FDA have not disclosed their stance on new methods of crop modification. The USDA ensures safety to grow a crop, the EPA ensures the environmental safety of crops, usually with pest-resistance genes, and the FDA ensures safety for crop consumption. The USDA explains in their press release that “methods, such as genome editing, expand traditional plant breeding tools because they can introduce new plant traits more quickly and precisely, potentially saving years or even decades in bringing needed new varieties to farmers”. Importantly, these new tools are “indistinguishable from those developed through traditional breeding methods” and therefore do not warrant regulation.

Image Credit: Amala John

The genome can be thought of like a Word document, where the sequence of letters can be edited to modify the meaning of the document to the reader

To understand the differences in these new technologies, imagine entering the genetic code of a plant into a word document like in the figure above. First generation genetic modification of crops in the 90s primarily involved making plants resistant to certain pests or herbicides. This would be analogous to copying DNA sequences from an organism like bacteria and pasting it randomly into your plants’ genome, which allows it to be immune to the effects of certain plant pests. These are the typical GMO corn and soy crops you might be familiar with. They are contentious and highly regulated since the random “pasting” process may disturb genes and they contain foreign DNA. Genome editing, on the other hand, allows us to search through our word document for a specific sequence, make an edit, and let spell-check take over from there. In a plant, we can cut a specific DNA sequence and allow the cells’ repair mechanism to fix the mistake, which is imperfect and normally disables that gene. This process is cleaner and more reliable compared to traditional breeding methods, which is why the USDA sees no need to regulate it. Both of these techniques are a huge step up from traditional breeding, which can involve random mutagenesis and introduction of undesirable genes, which have been shown to happen through the domestication process. Furthermore, newer techniques enable this whole process to be DNA-free, so there is no foreign DNA ever inserted into these edited plants. Critics point to the unintended biological consequences of both of these processes, which is possible but has not been shown to occur in the past 30 years.

Genome editing tools include Zinc-finger nucleases like TALEN, which has been used since the 90s, and CRISPR, which is only a few years old. CRISPR especially has made dramatic advancements in the past few years due to its thrift, ease of use and reliability. Academic labs and biotech start-ups have been developing crops using genome editing and therefore are bypassing costly regulation that they normally would not have been able to afford. Browning-resistant mushrooms, for example, were developed at Penn State and were the first CRISPR-edited crops given the go-ahead for commercialization. High-fiber wheat and high oleic soybeans are currently being developed by a startup called Calyxt using TALEN. These are just some of the crops on the horizon and there are many more that are expected to emerge in the next few years. If the U.S. government doesn’t develop guidelines for proper regulation of these biotech products, they won’t be able to handle the increased rate at which they’re currently being produced. Without unnecessary regulation slowing things down, the future of genome editing in crops looks promising; there is a greater emphasis on developing nutritional foods that consumers desire while also helping farmers grow more efficiently. However, just because these new technologies don’t fit under the current definition of a “GMO” for the government, they should still require some level of oversight appropriate for the technology. Genome editing is changing the landscape of agricultural biotechnology; hopefully, the regulation of these crops follows suit.

Peer edited by Julia DiFiore.

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The Terminator of the Genome

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The real Terminator

“Listen. Understand. The Terminator is out there. It can’t be reasoned with, it can’t be bargained with… it doesn’t feel pity or remorse or fear…and it will absolutely not stop. Ever. Until you are dead.” In the movie “The Terminator”, the Terminator’s one job was to kill a woman whose son will later hurt his cyborg people. You may wonder what the Terminator has to do with molecular biology but it’s actually quite relevant. We have a ‘terminator’ in our body called p53; its job is to kill rogue cells and prevent cancer from spreading through our bodies at all costs.

p53 works as a gatekeeper in the cells of our body. Just like how gates prevent criminals from getting out when they’re not supposed to, our cells have gates and security to prevent rogue cells, like cancerous cells, from squeezing past checkpoints that make sure cells are normal and healthy. Cells grow, mature and reach a point where they need to divide to make new cells. Each of these steps have checkpoints that make sure the cells are normal and healthy so that the new cells aren’t abnormal or cancerous. Without this security, cancer cells would be running rampant in our bodies. Many cancers are caused by a loss of security in the cell, allowing cancer cells to grow and divide without being stopped at these checkpoints. p53 is one of these gatekeepers. Its function is crucial for cell regulation, cell death and checking cells to make sure they’re not abnormal and cancerous.

When a cell grows and divides, it stops at certain checkpoints in that process to make sure nothing is abnormal and that it is a healthy cell. p53 acts at these checkpoints in the cell to inspect and ensure that the cell isn’t mutated or messed up in any way. If the cell passes inspection, then it moves along and keeps growing and then exits the cycle of growing and dividing. If p53 catches a rogue cell trying to sneak past a checkpoint with mutated DNA or too many chromosomes, it calls in a whole arsenal of molecules called caspases that kill the cell through a process called apoptosis or prevent the cell from making new cells.

Gatekeeper molecules are very important to the cell because they prevent mutated cells from growing and making more mutated cells, eventually leading to cancer or neurodegenetive disease. p53 is activated by cell stress, like external heat or toxins. Stress signals that there is something wrong with the cell division process and that there needs to be more stringent inspection of cells to determine the cause of cell stress and to get rid of it. The problem becomes when gatekeeper molecules themselves are mutated like how border guards can be corrupted or bribed. When p53 in a cell is corrupted, nothing else is checking the cell’s genome to see if it is mutated. These cells get a free pass to divide, thrive and build up in places they shouldn’t be, which is what causes cancer.

 https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:P53.png

p53 (blue) interacting with DNA (orange)

p53 is mutated in over 50% of cancers like ovarian cancer, breast cancer and colorectal cancer. When working properly, p53 is a tumor suppressor but when it is mutated, is becomes an oncoprotein, a protein that promotes cancer. Two copies of p53 or two gatekeepers are needed in each cell in order for p53 to inspect and shut down rogue cells properly. However, in cancer, one of these copies of p53 is mutated and the other copy is unable to keep up with all the inspections that need to be done. In aggressive cancers, the remaining copy of p53 can become mutated into an oncoprotein and help rogue cells grow, divide and spread to other parts of the body.  

There are various ways that the body tries to prevent mutant p53 from enabling cancer to grow. One of these is through the protein Mdm2 which targets p53 for degradation. When the cell is happy and under low stress, p53 does not need to cause cell death. However, if p53 is mutated it will try to kill the cell. At this point, Mdm2 destroys p53 because it can see that p53 isn’t working properly. Mdm2 is responsive to p53. If p53 levels go up, Mdm2 levels go up as well so that the cell is working properly and is regulated. However, in cancer, Mdm2 can be shut down by other mechanisms so that it can’t shut down p53.

At UNC, Yanping Zhang’s lab studies the Mdm2-p53 pathway. In particular, they study what happens when Mdm2 is mutated and can’t degrade abnormal p53. Thus far, they have found that under conditions of low stress, Mdm2 can be mutated and not have any adverse effects on the cell. However, mice that do not have any Mdm2 were not viable because, left unregulated, p53 constantly killed the cells no matter if they were abnormal or not.

p53 is an amazing protein that works hard to terminate all the abnormal cells in our body. Hopefully, through more study, we can find ways to prevent the mis-regulation of p53 and thus help treat cancers due to p53 mutations.

Peer edited by Samual Honeycutt and Mimi Huang.

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Finding Power in Discomfort: 5 Ways to Advocate for Yourself and Others in Science

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Share your experiences, it might just empower others. Image: Parliamentary Copyright/Jessica Taylor

Three years ago, I moved from California to North Carolina for graduate school, an experience that pushed me out of my comfort zone in more ways than I expected. The most discomforting was feeling very different from my colleagues. For example, my identity as a woman of color became more salient when I realized there were fewer people who looked like me in the classes and meetings I attended. It wasn’t until recently that I found a community of like-minded, underrepresented students who told stories similar to mine. I felt empowered through this shared struggle to learn how to advocate for myself and others in order to increase visibility for underrepresented groups in science. Not sure how to do it (like me)? Try these tips!

Bring your personal identity into your work. Increase the visibility of your personal identity in the workplace so that you are not left out of the conversation. It can be uncomfortable to bring up your experiences and challenges related to gender, race, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, etc., but doing so may provide the opportunity for others to exhibit empathy. Regardless of the differences between people, everyone shares the mutual need for kindness and respect. It’s important and necessary to stay true to who you are in order to create more of a dialogue, so don’t hide it.

Empower others by sharing your story. Share your own stories of success or hardship because not only does it feel intrinsically rewarding to communicate your thoughts and feelings with others, but it can also validate the range of experiences that other underrepresented students face and often in silence. If you’re shy or nervous, try sharing your story on Akin, an anonymous digital storytelling platform created by my friend, Cassandra Lam, to empower people to connect through stories of shared experiences.

Step into a world you don’t know much about. Equally important is the ability to listen to others’ stories, as it can provide insight into the privileges you might not even realize you have. Be mindful that some people will face certain challenges that you might never have to face (e.g., gender identity, sexual orientation). Be open-minded, ask questions, and acknowledge others’ perspectives (try to avoid phrases like “at least you don’t have to deal with…” which might undercut what they’re sharing).

Express your intellectual humility. It can be hard to say “I don’t know” to anything, but learning how to articulate exactly what you don’t know can be the engine for establishing new learning and networking opportunities. Seek knowledge from teachers and experts about topics you’re unfamiliar with, but are interested in learning. It’s also okay to ask for support from mentors and colleagues. You’ll be surprised at how many people want you to succeed and are willing to help.

Dive into more uncomfortable conversations about uncomfortable topics. When discussion of uncomfortable topics (e.g., lack of visibility for underrepresented groups) arises, I challenge you to speak up, even when it’s easier to stay silent to avoid causing rifts in conversation. Advocating for the importance of your/others’ needs lifts up the voices of those who are unable or are afraid to so themselves.

Peer edited by Mikayla Armstrong.

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House Tax Bill Could Lead to Significant Tax Increase for UNC Grad Students

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The current IRS 1040 income tax form.

Last Thursday, the House of Representatives passed a version of the tax reform bill that, if made into law, could lead to a massive tax increase for many US graduate students.

The cause of this would be the removal of section 117(d)(5) from the tax code. This section establishes that any reduction to university tuition, granted in exchange for work, cannot be taxed.

Many graduate students work as teachers and researchers at their universities, and in exchange receive moderate stipends and have their tuition costs covered by waivers. The removal of section 117(d)(5) would mean that the value of these tuition waivers would be considered part of a student’s taxable income.

Depending on course load, a graduate student enrolled at UNC’s School of Medicine, is  charged from around $8,000 to $34,000 in out-of-state tuition. These numbers vary between different graduate programs at UNC, but generally fall within this range. That means a UNC graduate student in the life-sciences, receiving a $30,000 stipend, could see their taxable income increase to more than $60,000, without taking home any extra money.  

How much your taxes would increase would depend on factors like your residency status, credit hours, and the stipend value. But even for students with relatively low tuition costs, the increase could be several thousand dollars annually, adding significant financial strain for many students who are already scraping by. The effect would be even worse at institutions like MIT and Harvard, where graduate tuition can be more than $50,000.

Graduate students would not be the only ones affected. University employees are the other major group that benefit from tax-exempt tuition waivers, and are often able to send their children to school at greatly reduced costs. For many, that means access to education that would otherwise be prohibitively expensive.

Cutting tuition waiver tax exemption is not the only way the House bill would impact higher education though. The bill would also drop a $2,500 deduction of student loan interest, as well as the tax exempt status for bond financing at private universities.

Unsurprisingly, the House bill has been met with significant concern by US educational institutions as well as students. Erin Rousseau, a graduate student at MIT, wrote a sharp essay for the New York Times on how the House tax reforms may force her to leave school, and the president of Elon University, Leo Lambert, wrote an op-ed piece in the Raleigh News and Observer in opposition. The Association of American Universities has also issued a statement arguing that the proposed reforms would make higher education less accessible for many Americans.

On the other side, arguments have been made that the relevant proposals, particularly the removal of section 117(d)(5), would not be as detrimental to graduate education as many have claimed.

Forbe’s contributor Preston Cooper wrote that colleges could dodge any negative effects by simply reclassifying tuition waivers as scholarships. That change, Cooper argues, would keep tuition assistance protected from being taxed. Whether it’s feasible for public universities like UNC to make this change rapidly enough isn’t clear, but it seems reasonable that universities could make some adjustments to help students.

All that said, it’s important to point out that the Senate version of the tax reform bill, which could be voted on as soon as next week, retains the tax-exempt status of tuition waivers. So, it is still very much undecided whether the reforms affecting higher-ed will actually become law.

Even though the House bill has already passed, the UNC Graduate and Professional Student Federation (GPSF) has urged students to petition their senators to fight the House proposals and to prevent any reforms to tuition waivers from being made into law. Students should also call their state senators, North Carolina Senators Richard Burr and Thom Tillis.

With the Senate potentially voting on their version of the tax bill at the end of the month, the debate over these tax reforms is almost certainly just getting started.

Peer edited by Erika Van Goethem.

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Is the GRE a Waste of Money?

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Is the GRE really worth it? Some students are starting think it’s not.

Graduate schools generally utilize previous transcripts, Graduate Record Examination (GRE) scores, personal statements from applicants, and letters of recommendation in order to assess whether candidates are suitably prepared for success in graduate school. However, how much do any of these individual components contribute to the success of a student in graduate school? Multiple published articles argue that there are no methods to precisely measure the success of graduate students, however that hasn’t stopped scientists from trying. In a recent study from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, researchers tackled this question by characterizing success in graduate school as the number of published first-author articles. They then compared this to more traditional parameters that are normally used to determine if students are prepared for graduate school. Students’ grades, GRE scores, and even impressions from admissions interviews with faculty members were each examined and found to have no correlation to success in graduate school. In fact the only predictive indicator of success was found to be letters of recommendation that stated that the student were among the top tier of students.

Although this study was only recently published and has yet to have significant impact on graduate student applications, it is hardly the first study of its kind. A researcher at the University of California at San Francisco (UCSF) utilized data collected from students over the course of a twenty-year period and found that grades and GRE scores were not predictive of the success of students. This UCSF study found that the only indicators of success were whether or not the students had completed a full two years of research prior to graduate school and the subject-specific GRE.

 

Another study conducted at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee essentially found that the only thing that the GRE predicts is the first semester GPA of graduate students. All other markers of success such as passage of qualifying examinations, time to defense, successful completion of a Ph.D., and the likelihood of first-author publications did not correlate with GRE scores. In fact, when the GRE was originally assessed for its ability to predict success of students, the only measurement utilized was to compare GRE scores to the GPA of graduate students.

Image by Lindsay Walton

GRE scores are a better indicator of Race and Gender than of success in Graduate School

So, if the GRE doesn’t predict success in school, what does it actually indicate? Many are questioning the utility of the GRE as a measure that is useful in selecting students. Multiple basic scientists have spoken out against the usefulness of the GRE, and have cited studies that indicate that the GRE is a better predictor of both sex and race than it is an indicator of success in graduate school. As one researcher put it, “The GRE is a proxy for asking ‘Are you rich?’ ‘Are you white?’ ‘Are you male?” For example, some minorities, such as black students typically score 200 points below their white counterparts in spite of being successfully prepared for graduate school. Graduate school is typically a white-predominated educational platform. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, white students represent approximately 64% of the total graduate student population. By continuing to require students to submit GRE scores, schools are eliminating underrepresented minorities as potentially successful candidates, when instead they should be creating additional opportunities to prepare minorities to succeed in graduate school.

 

Most directors of biomedical graduate programs are actually basic scientists. They understand that educational practices should be evidence-based. However, in spite of all this compelling data, few institutions are actually eliminating requirements for extraneous examinations such as the GRE, transcripts, and other requirements. In fact, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Vanderbilt University researchers, who published the articles on GRE scores not being a predictor of graduate school success, are involved in the admissions process of biomedical programs at their institutions. Nonetheless, these programs still require submission of GRE scores, transcripts, and statements of purpose in spite of the fact that none of these application materials indicated who would thrive in graduate school. So the only question remains: If scientists won’t follow their own advice, how will academic admissions advance in the future?

Update: The author has been contacted by the UNC BBSP admissions office and told that while admissions for the 2018-2019 still requires submission of GRE scores, the admissions committee for the program has been instructed to ignore GRE scores in their consideration of applicants for the upcoming year. Currently the UNC Graduate School requires all programs to request GRE score submission prior to admission. In the future, the UNC BBSP program plans to review the success of the admission process while ignoring the GRE scores and then consider petitioning the UNC Graduate School in order to drop the requirement. 

One of the authors of the UNC paper, and a member of the UNC BBSP team, Dr. Joshua Hall, maintains an active twitter presence and can be found at @jdhallphd. Dr. Hall keeps an active list on his twitter of all the programs that have either dropped or plan to drop the GRE from their admissions process for those interested.

Peer edited by Sam Honeycutt and Kelsey Miller.

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AAAS Mass Media Science and Engineering Fellows Program

Are you interested in learning the tools to communicate complex ideas to a general audience?  The AAAS Mass Media Science and Engineering Fellows Program is a competitive 10 week program that places you with media organizations around the nation to give you the tools to make science news easy for the public to understand.  Fellows are placed with media professionals at radio and television stations, newspapers, and magazines where they work with host journalists to research, write, and report today’s science news.

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In the AAAS Mass Media Science and Engineering Fellows Program learn how to communicate complex ideas to a general audience.

To be eligible for this fellowship you must be an advanced undergraduate, graduate, or post-graduate level student in life, physical, health, engineering, computer, or social sciences or mathematics and related fields.

For more information and fellowship criteria visit the AAAS website.

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Are You Ready for Science Writing and Communication 2017/2018?

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We are so excited about what’s in store for SWAC this year! If you are interested in writing or editing for SWAC for the 2017/2018 year, be sure to attend one of our orientations this fall. Even if you’ve contributed before, come learn new SWAC policies, meet the new executive board, and make new friends interested in science communication. There are two orientations for your convenience, but you only need to attend one.  Click on the links to register today!

 

Thursday, September 7th at 4pm  http://tinyurl.com/ybxz6sdj

Wednesday, September 13th at 12pm  http://tinyurl.com/y8kf2th4

 

Be on the lookout for more details coming to your inbox in August.

 

Sincerely,

The SWAC Team

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Science and Ethics

So let’s say, hypothetically, that your lab receives blood samples from a group of individuals to study genetic links with diabetes.  However, these samples would also provide important insights into other diseases.  But the researchers did not get consent from the blood samples donors for the extra research.  For researchers at Arizona State University (ASU) and the University of Arizona (U of A), this was not a hypothetical situation.  

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DNA from blood samples provide the information needed to potentially cure many diseases that plague us today.  But if the proper procedure is not followed, these scientific breakthroughs may never leave the courtroom.

They collected 400 blood samples from the Havasupai Tribe around 1990 to understand if there was any connection between genes and diabetes, at the tribe’s request. This particular tribe is from an isolated area of the Grand Canyon, with a restricted gene pool contributing to genetic diseases.  This Native American tribe has a high-incidence with diabetes.  The researchers did investigate this problem with diabetes, but they also wrote a grant proposal for researching schizophrenia in the Havasupai Tribe, which the tribe was not aware of nor gave consent for.

The main issues raised in this case are:

  • What is informed consent?  In this case, the consent form stated that the samples were to be used for studies on behavioral and medical diseases. But, meetings between the researchers and tribe members indicated that only diabetes was to be studied.  Using broad or vague language in consent forms can lead to miscommunication between scientists and subjects.
  • What information in the medical records can be accessed and by who?  Some researchers gained access to medical records without permission. Files should be kept in a secured place where only the authorized users have access.
  • Who has control of the samples?  This is a question that needs to be discussed with the subjects before samples are collected.  Researchers might want to contact their university’s research center for more information on sample ownership.

 

As scientists, we have a set of standards, or ethics, that help members coordinate their actions and establish trust with the public. Below are four ethical norms (or goals) that affect graduate students:

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Scientists build and maintain credibility with the public by conducting research responsibly and with integrity.

  1. Promote the goals of scientific discovery, such as furthering knowledge and truth.
  2. Advocate collaboration between scientists; diversity and collaboration create new and novel discoveries that we can all benefit from.
  3. Promote accountability to the Public; it’s essential that the Public can trust the scientists to do their best work and avoid misconduct, conflicts of interest, and ensure that human/animal subjects are properly handled.
  4. Build Public support, without federal funding many of us graduate students would not be able to do our research.

For the misuse of their DNA samples, the  Havasupai Tribe filed a lawsuit against Arizona Board of Regents and ASU researchers in 2004, which eventually led to a settlement in 2010.  The tribe received $700,000 and their blood samples were returned.  The situation with ASU and U of A researchers has left an air of mistrust in Native American communities.  As scientists, it’s our responsibility to build trust with the public and maintain open and honest communication.  

 

Peer Edited by Bailey DeBarmore

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Physical Activity: A Simple Approach to a Large Problem

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Our great-grandparents didn’t need to exercise in order to be healthy. Many of them had jobs that involved hard physical labor.

It seems the longer the obesity epidemic plagues the United States, the more complicated solutions to this problem become.  Exercise programs become more intricate, diet plans become more extreme and hype could not be louder.  However, using an old and simplistic mindset when approaching this problem can be more effective than “the latest breakthrough in fat loss!”.  Try to recall memories of your great-grandparents.  Were your great-grandparents obese or relatively fit?  What were their daily physical activity levels?  Did they work on a farm or in a manufacturing job? If they did, their physical activity levels were probably high. But what about their exercise levels; did they even exercise at all?  I ask this because there is a difference between working on a farm all day and exercising.  Working in a farm or factory is characterized as physical activity but does not count as exercise.  Exercise is the deliberate intention of getting physical activity.  

This distinction between laboring work and sedentary work started the field of exercise physiology.  In 1952 Jerry Morris, an epidemiologist from Scotland, published a study on the differences in incidence of heart disease between sedentary bus drivers and active conductors in the London transport system.  Morris found that  both the transport conductors and drivers came from similar socio-economic status but the conductors had lower rates of heart disease.  This difference was attributed to the walking and stair climbing demanded of conductors.  Subsequent studies, co-authored by Morris, showed that not only were conductors less likely to experience heart disease, but those working jobs requiring more movement were protected from heart disease compared to their sedentary counterparts.  Although Morris recently died at the age of 99, he continues to have a positive influence on the field of exercise and epidemiology, having contributed to a study finding that meeting the minimum requirements (150 minutes/week) of exercise per week (American College of Sports Medicine and The English Department of Health) resulted in a 25% lower mortality rate compared to sedentary populations.  This means that getting just a little physical activity or exercise everyday can increase your life expectancy and quality of life.

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Today, physical activity means going to a gym and running on a treadmill or elliptical.

Exercise is characterized as deliberately moving one’s body in a physically active manner with the intention of improving health and/or fitness.  I bring this up because you do not have to exercise in order to remain healthy; however, your physical activity levels need to be high.  Beyond working in a farm or factory there are other forms of applicable physical activity.  In fact, physical activity does not only have to be work, it can also be functional and fun!  Historically, physical activity is the most straightforward and most successful solution to the United States obesity epidemic.  Physical activity includes: active commuting, yard work, taking the stairs, recreational sports, dance classes and from a nomadic perspective hunting and gathering.  Active commuting involves walking or biking to work and can help solve both environmental and health problems the United States currently faces.  Active commuting has been shown to decrease chances of cardiovascular disease by 11% while also decreasing risk for cancer.

Finding a combination of functional and fun physical activity will require creativity, flexibility, and tweaking your current lifestyle but is worth it in the end.  Create a set of guidelines that will direct you towards a more physically active lifestyle.  

These guidelines should look like:

  1. Make physical activity a priority – Above anything else increasing your physical activity will require you to make mental adjustments.  Accept the fact that there may be a few inconveniences added to your life, but they are worth it.
  2. Make it simple – Stay at your kids soccer practice and walk during their practice time.  Take the stairs at work and walk to your lunch destination.  
  3. Create a social environment – Engage a friend or coworker to join you on lunch time workouts or attend evening yoga classes.  Develop friendships and camaraderie at an exercise group you join.  A study performed at Santa Clara University found that people in social exercise programs were 19% more likely to complete a weight loss exercise program and 42% more likely to maintain their weight loss.  
  4. Include a variety of activities – If you like the outdoors, find trails or paths weaving in the woods to hike or bike.  If you want to stay inside find indoor sports, dancing clubs or indoor pools.  A study at the University of Florida found that participants using an exercise plan with variety enjoyed exercise 20% more than individuals using the same plan everyday.  
  5. Stick with it – Find safe, low-cost activities and activities that can fit into your daily schedule.  Find an activity that makes you feel accomplished afterwards.

It takes leading by example and communication for ideas like this to spread, but think of the impact physical activity had on early Americans and the impact it can still have!  Challenge yourself and challenge others to jump aboard this simple solution to one of America’s largest problems.

 

Peer edited by Amala John.

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