The Howard Hughes Medical Institute has awarded grants to 44 doctoral adviser-student pairs to improve faculty mentoring skills, support new scientific leaders, and foster diversity and inclusion in science.

A good scientific mentor can help students navigate different career paths and plug them into new networks. A mentor can be a sounding board and an advocate – and they can also make the experience of being a scientist more fun.

That’s a goal of biologist Samara Reck-Peterson, one of 44 advisers the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) has selected for the 2019 Gilliam Fellowships for Advanced Study. Each adviser was chosen as part of an adviser-student pair and is committed to building inclusive lab environments and helping increase diversity among the next generation of scientists.

HHMI's Gilliam Fellowship Program moves science forward through diversity and inclusion.

“I want to help my team enjoy scientific discovery and make it a fun process for everyone I work with,” says Reck-Peterson, an HHMI investigator at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD). She thinks the Gilliam program’s emphasis on mentoring will help. Her fellow, Donte “Alex” Stevens, is studying the molecular machines that drive transport within cells and how these machines interact with pathogens.

Stevens and the other new Gilliam Fellows join a community that now totals 256 outstanding young scientists, says David Asai, HHMI’s senior director for science education. This year’s fellows represent dozens of schools across the country, from the University of Arizona to Vanderbilt University in Tennessee. The fellows also come from racial, ethnic, or other groups underrepresented in the sciences.

Each fellow submitted a career statement describing how their personal experiences and training inform their science, and how they plan to make scientific culture more inclusive. Asai says the fellows all show promise as scientists. “The Gilliam program is aimed at people who will become leaders in science,” he says. “We’re trying to change the face of university faculty, so students see leaders of all different backgrounds.”

“We’re trying to change the face of university faculty, so students see leaders of all different backgrounds.”

David Asai, HHMI’s senior director for science education

But for students to thrive, a good training environment is crucial, he says. That’s where the program’s mentoring component comes in. Along with a $50,000 annual award for up to three years for each adviser-student pair, advisers will participate in a year of mentor training focused on cultural awareness. Over the past four years, more than 130 advisers have taken part; activities include online training and two in-person workshops at HHMI headquarters in Chevy Chase, Maryland.

It’s an intensive experience, says HHMI Investigator Erich Jarvis, who was selected along with his student, Cesar Vargas, for a Gilliam Fellowship in 2018. “This is not your usual fellowship,” he says. “You put in a good amount of effort not only mentoring your student, but also learning how to be a mentor.”

At one of the 2018 Gilliam workshops, the idea of recognizing different people’s cultural backgrounds and experiences stuck with Jarvis, a neurobiologist at The Rockefeller University. His advice for other mentors: “Don’t assume your students know how to navigate the scientific community. You have to train them how to do that.”

HHMI's Gilliam Fellowship Program supports faculty in building inclusive environments for students.

Last year, mentors spent $4,000 of their awards to address challenges to diversity and inclusion at the graduate level. Jarvis used half the money to support an undergraduate who comes from a group underrepresented in science to learn how to do experiments with the Gilliam student as their mentor. He put the other half toward a student-run diversity committee at Rockefeller that invites speakers to talk about the science of diversity.

At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, cell biologist Ben Major, mentor to a 2016 and a 2018 Gilliam Fellow, is using the money to recruit faculty candidates who are from underrepresented groups. “I saw an opportunity to target the crazy disparity that most universities have at the faculty level,” says Major, now at Washington University in St. Louis. “That’s a problem that I think we should pay more attention to.”

Asai hopes that these activities and the Gilliam program’s emphasis on mentoring will have a ripple effect throughout academia – and change faculty behavior. Improving listening skills, understanding cultural identities, and learning to talk about differences can make scientists better mentors, he says. And that can help keep students in science.

UCSD’s Reck-Peterson is looking forward to her upcoming training. She’s thought a lot about mentoring during her career and has taken courses, led workshops, and even contributed to a book for postdocs and faculty. But, she says, “One of the most important things I’ve learned is that you’re never done learning how to become a good mentor.”


HHMI created the Gilliam Fellowships for Advanced Study in honor of the late James H. Gilliam, Jr. A charter trustee of HHMI, Gilliam was a respected business and civic leader who spent his life nurturing excellence and diversity in science and education.

To be eligible for a Gilliam Fellowship, students must be enrolled in their second or third year of a PhD program in biomedical or life sciences disciplines, but not in an MD/PhD program. Students must be from racial, ethnic, or other underrepresented groups in the sciences, or alumni of the HHMI EXROP program. Students must aspire to careers in academic science and demonstrate a commitment to the advancement of diversity and inclusion in the sciences.

2019 Gilliam Fellows and Advisers

Fellows Institutions Thesis Advisers
Elise Adamson Duke University Kafui Dzirasa
Kellianne Alexander University of Massachusetts Medical School Michael Francis
Michael Allevato University of California, San Diego School of Medicine J. Silvio Gutkind
Justin Avila Vanderbilt University Medical Center Michelle Southard-Smith
Selina Baeza-Loya The University of Chicago Ruth Anne Eatock
Gabriela Bosque Ortiz Yale School of Medicine Marcelo Dietrich
Ernesto Cabezas-Bou Yale University School of Medicine (Adviser); University of Puerto Rico (Fellow) Daniel Colón-Ramos
Natasha Cornejo University of Arizona John Jewett
Roberto Efraín Díaz  University of California, San Francisco James Fraser
Joel Encarnacion-Rosado New York University Langone Health Alec Kimmelman
Irma Fernandez Cornell University Robert Weiss
Tavita Garrett Oregon Health & Science University Laurence Trussell
Devin Gibbs University of California, Los Angeles April Pyle
Brian Glenn St Hilaire Baylor College of Medicine Erez Lieberman Aiden
Brea Hampton The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Mark Heise
Gloria Hernandez University of California, Los Angeles Luisa Iruela-Arispe
Jamie Hernandez University of Washington Kim Woodrow
Andrew Hinton The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Peter Mucha 
Kristina Holme University of Michigan Scott Pletcher
Jesse Holt University of California, Irvine School of Medicine Medha Pathak
Nia Johnson University of Michigan Regina Baucom
David Johnson Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Alea Mills
Natasha Lopes Fischer University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine Sunny Shin
Samar Mahmoud University of Massachusetts Amherst Peter Chien
Shelsa Marcel The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine Ian Davis
Leslie Mateo Stanford University School of Medicine Alistair Boettiger
Kelly Montgomery University of California, San Francisco Jason Gestwicki
Daniel Morales-Mantilla Baylor College of Medicine Katherine King
Ferra Pinnock Cornell University Susan Daniel
Donna Poscablo University of California, Santa Cruz Camilla Forsberg
Sadi Quinones Tufts University Chris Dulla
Román Ramos Báez University of Washington Jennifer Nemhauser
Josue Regalado The Rockefeller University Priya Rajasethupathy
Christopher Reid Harvard Medical School Corey Harwell
Kristina Rivera The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine Scott Magness
Marc Sprague-Piercy University of California, Irvine Rachel Martin
Jacob Steenwyk Vanderbilt University Antonis Rokas
Donte Stevens University of California, San Diego Samara Reck-Peterson
Alexis Toliver Brown University Carlos Aizenman
Erick Velasquez University of California, Los Angeles Jorge Torres
José Velilla Harvard University Rachelle Gaudet
Apple Vollmers University of California, Santa Cruz Susan Carpenter
Kellie Williford Vanderbilt University School of Medicine Danny Winder
Fauna Yarza University of California, San Francisco Seemay Chou

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