As the coronavirus swept into Detroit this spring, Wayne State University junior Skye Taylor noticed something striking. On social media, many of her fellow Black classmates who live or grew up in the city were “posting about death, like, ‘Oh, I lost this family member to COVID-19,’” said Taylor.
The picture was different in Beverly Hills, a mostly white suburb 20 miles away. “People I went to high school with aren’t posting anything like that,” Taylor said. “They’re doing well, their family is doing OK. And even the ones whose family members have caught it, they’re still alive.”
How do COVID-19 infection rates and outcomes differ between these ZIP codes? she wondered. How do their hospitals and other resources compare? This summer, as part of an eight-week research collaborative developed by San Francisco researchers and funded by the National Institutes of Health, Taylor will look at that question and other effects of the pandemic. She’s one of 70 participants from backgrounds underrepresented in science who are learning basic coding and data analysis methods to explore disparity issues.
Data to address racial discrepancies in care and outcomes has been spotty during the pandemic, and it isn’t available for most of these students’ communities, which disproportionately bear the brunt of the virus. The participants are “asking questions from a perspective that we desperately need, because their voices aren’t really there in the scientific community,” said Alison Gammie, who directs the division of training, workforce development and diversity at the National Institute of General Medical Sciences.
Scientists from Black, Hispanic, Native American and other minority backgrounds have long been underrepresented in biomedicine. By some measures, efforts to diversify the field have made progress: The number of these minorities who earned life science doctoral degrees rose more than ninefold from 1980 to 2013. But this increase in Ph.D.s has not moved the needle at the faculty level.
Instead, the number of minority assistant professors in these fields has dipped in recent years, from 347 in 2005 to 341 in 2013. And some of those who have entered public health endure racial aggression and marginalization in the workplace — or, after years in a toxic environment, quietly leave.
“We really need to focus on making sure people are supported and find academic and research jobs sufficiently desirable that they choose to stay,” said Gammie. “There have been improvements, but we still have a long way to go.”
Read more at KHN.org.