HHMI Tripled its Diversity Fellowship. Can It Make a Difference?

Howard Hughes Medical Institute just announced the latest round of winners in a fellowship committed to increasing diversity in science, tripling the program's size. A class of 30 might not sound like a lot, but it could have a big impact. 

Given that it's the country's largest private funder of academic biomedial research, HHMI is in a rare position to make an actual dent in STEM fields’ diversity problem. 

While the goal of the institute is to advance research and education, not necessarily with a focus on increasing diversity, it does have some programs that tackle the problem. In particular, there are two programs that work in tandem as a sort of pipeline of students from undergrad, up into leadership roles. 

The second part of that pipeline is the Gilliam Fellowship, which targets Ph.D. students with potential to become leaders in their fields and champions of future diversity. The fellowship started in 2004, but maxed out at five possible fellows. In 2011, the program expanded to a maximum of 10 winners. Now, with the latest round announced this week, the fellowship has tripled to a max of 30.

The new class includes 30 grad students studying in life science fields, from backgrounds traditionally underrepresented in the sciences. It’s a sizeable award, too, with winners landing $43,000 a year for up to three years. 

The competition has also expanded in terms of who can apply. Previously, nominees all came from HHMI’s Exceptional Research Opportunities Program (EXROP), an undergraduate research program for candidates from underrepresented or disadvantaged backgrounds. Now they can also be nominated by researchers who are involved in a training grant program under the National Institute for General Medical Sciences.

Thirty fellows might seem small in the grand scheme of things, and it definitely won’t improve diversity overnight. But it’s all about following through. 

According to HHMI, the undergrad EXROP program has recruited 732 students, with 506 participants graduating with bachelor’s degrees, and 228 going on to graduate programs. Naturally, not all people involved with the programs will go on to become career scientists. 

By channeling some of those who stick with science into the Gilliam Fellowship, which awards those who are not only highly skilled but also have a commitment to increasing diversity, it closes the loop to create new leaders. It hopes to combat the chicken-egg problem of a lack of diversity among leaders in science, which then leads to a lack of diversity among younger students, ad infinitum. Tripling that second stage of developing such leaders is no small improvement.