Youth Neurology Program: Building a More Diverse Neurology Workforce
Neurological conditions such as stroke, Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease are leading causes of disability and premature death, afflicting women, people of color and low-income communities at much higher rates than average. Yet these populations are underrepresented in the field of neurology. According to the American Association of Medical Colleges, about 30% of neurology faculty at teaching hospitals in the U.S. identify as women, 3% Hispanic or Latinx, 2% Black or African American, and less than 1% identify as Native or Indigenous. Nicte Mejia, M.D., M.P.H., FAAN, is working to change that.
“As long as we have this gap in workforce diversity across the neurology field, we will continue to see the health disparities that have been well-documented in neurology,” explained Dr. Mejia, a neurologist and director of Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) Neurology’s Community Health, Diversity and Inclusion initiatives.
In 2020, the Biogen Foundation collaborated with MGH and Dr. Mejia to jointly develop the MGH Youth Neurology Education and Research Program. This first-of-its-kind program aims to advance health equity and scientific innovation by building a diverse pipeline of future neuroscientists and neurologists with strong leadership skills.
Interns are paired with neurology mentors with expertise in a variety of research disciplines. Throughout the summer, students collect, analyze and interpret scientific data and participate in online forums on career development, innovation and leadership skills. “This program is more than just making the field more diverse,” Dr. Mejia said. “By providing opportunities for education and professional growth for students from underrepresented backgrounds, my hope is that we are positively shaping the places where these students live, work, study and play.”
Building the future of neurology
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, both the summer 2020 and 2021 internship cohorts shifted to a predominantly virtual format, though undergraduates in 2021 had the opportunity to do some in-person research in the labs and engage in clinical shadowing.
The second cohort of students completed the program this summer, and Angel Muthemba was among them. A sophomore studying neuroscience at Emmanuel College in Boston, Angel investigated the role of sex hormones such as estrogen in migraines, which impact 12-15% of the population and are more prevalent in women. “I’ve always known that I wanted to go into science, but this experience definitely reinforced my passion,” Angel said.
While Angel was already set on neuroscience, most students were not as familiar with the field going into the internship. At the beginning of the program, only one-third of the students were interested in neuroscience or neurology as a profession. By the time they finished the program, however, 95% of the students in both cohorts reported they planned to pursue a career or further study in the area.
In a field where diversity is sorely lacking, the program offers a vision for what’s possible. All students in both cohorts of 60 research interns were from communities that are underrepresented in neurology, with 88% identifying as people of color and 74% identifying as female or non-binary. Two-thirds are the first in their families to pursue college.
“We often hear that it is hard to find candidates from underrepresented backgrounds for academic opportunities,” Dr. Mejia explained. “Our success in recruiting dozens of outstanding students across a diversity of backgrounds is due in large part to longstanding collaborative partnerships with community-based organizations that support students from underrepresented backgrounds. We also removed unnecessary barriers that tend to benefit more privileged students, such as by offering paid rather than volunteer opportunities and streamlining the application process.”
Mentorship for long-term success
Dr. Mejia stressed the importance of ensuring that STEM pipeline programs are more than just a few weeks during the summer. “Longer term mentorship and support long after the program ends is critical to ensure students’ continued interest in neurology and success in pursuing their academic goals,” she said.
Angel has already experienced the types of opportunities that present themselves with strong mentorship. “I mentioned my interest in endometriosis research and women’s health to Dr. Harriott, my mentor,” Angel explained. “Two weeks later, Dr. Harriott asked if I would be interested in joining a colleague’s research project studying the correlation between migraines and endometriosis. I said, ‘Yes, absolutely!’ If I had to pick one thing to work on for the rest of my career, it would be finding a cure for endometriosis, so I was super excited.”
Replicating a promising model
In addition to the hands-on research with interns, the program offers the Inspire Speaker Series, online weekly talks highlighting the careers of experts and leaders in the field of neurology. These talks are open to everyone and have already reached more than 500 students across dozens of countries. Looking forward, the MGH Youth Neurology Education and Research Program aims to reach a total of 100 neurology research interns by 2022.
In 2021, Biogen expanded on this model with Duke University School of Medicine, delivering a summer training and mentoring program in neuroscience for underrepresented high school and college students. That program includes the Duke Summer Training in Academic Research, recruiting students from Historically Black Colleges and Universities as well as mentorship from Biogen leaders. The program served 20 high school students, college students and teachers in 2021, with plans to more than double the number of participants in 2022, ensuring all students come from communities underrepresented in neuroscience.
As part of its Diversity, Equity and Inclusion strategy, Biogen is committed to supporting and expanding a diverse pipeline of STEM talent. Diversifying the neurology field and ensuring all students have opportunities to learn, grow and apply their talent is critical in treating and curing some of the most challenging neurological diseases of our time.
Learn more about Biogen’s commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion.