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A unique resource for women of color

Cerise Elliott
Program Director,
Division of Neuroscience (DN)

When I began graduate school in 1999, I knew right away that my experience would be different from that of my peers: I am a female scientist of color, and when I looked for others that looked like me, I saw only a few. Naturally, I wondered why this was the case and whether anything could be done to change the situation. While I understood the complexities of this issue, I believed that something could be done, and fortunately when I arrived at NIH, I found ready agreement among my colleagues.

In 2009, the NIH Women of Color Committee, a subcommittee of the NIH Working Group on Women in Biomedical Careers, established the Women of Color Research Network (WoCRn) website. The purpose of this site is to provide women in biomedical careers of diverse ethnic backgrounds and their supporters with information about the NIH grants process, advice on career development, and a venue for networking and sharing information.

What can WoCRn do for you?

WoCRn members can gain access to information and contacts through an array of online activities. They can:

  • View career-development resources
  • Identify potential mentors or collaborators using the membership directory
  • Connect with other scientists by starting a topic in the forums
  • Share our information with co-workers and mentees

A regional approach

NIH has been working with network leaders to spread the word about the WoCRn and what it offers. Recently, as we scanned the membership directory, we noticed concentrations of members in certain regional areas, and realized that the concentration offered a unique opportunity to organize regional WoCRn chapters, which—we believed—would help members generate organic relationships and stimulate change within their institutions and regions.

Sarah Parker Williams, women’s portfolio strategist in the NIH Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, agrees. “We have found many benefits associated with the formation of regional chapters,” she says. “The chapters provide members with the opportunity to engage in face-to-face networking, which we hope will help alleviate the feeling of isolation that many women of color scientists report experiencing. The regional chapters also allow members to identify needs or issues within their communities such as mentorship, professional development, or grant writing assistance, which they can then work together to address.”

Pioneers in Indiana and elsewhere

Indiana University (IU) established the first regional WoCRn chapter in 2013. Since then, IU has worked tirelessly to include members from all of its eight campuses in an effort to win champions in the administration. The intent is to lean upon the strength of the chapter to provide input into the university’s strategic plans. “We spent a lot of time defining the meaning of the network, opening the networks to all interested parties, and broadening our scope to enable success on a large scale,” says member Etta Ward, executive director of research development at IU-Purdue University Indianapolis. “We wanted our network to exemplify the same qualities we need in our faculty and staff.” The focus this year will be to inform and educate the network about unconscious bias in the workplace and provide insight on ways to address cultural climate in academia.

Following the success of the Indiana WoCRn Chapter, two other regional chapters were established in North Carolina and in Baltimore. The chapters have been highly successful and the network has created an avenue where women can truly support one another. “We’re currently working to establish a few mechanisms that will benefit the continued professional development of our members and that of STEM students in the Baltimore area,” says Jodian Brown, a Ph.D. candidate in chemistry and biochemistry at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

Group of women of color, with text 'Balitmore Chapter of W O C R N, Planning Meeting, August 13, 2015'

Dr. Shernita Lee, a SPIRE postdoctoral scholar at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and co-chair of the NC WoCRn, says she has benefitted enormously from being in the network, where excitement and commitment to the network’s mission drives its momentum and community impact. “This network has introduced me to an elite group of women who catalyze professional and community endeavors for its members, especially through mentoring,” she explains.

Group photo of women of color

Join the conversation and the network

You can make a difference too! If you are motivated to get something started in your academic community, start or join a conversation in the blog comments. We will always need strong, organized professionals to represent the concerns of women of color in the biomedical sciences and to pave the way toward success.

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