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The Howard Hughes Medical Institute has selected 45 doctoral students and their advisers to advance diversity and inclusion in the sciences.
The Howard Hughes Medical Institute has selected 45 doctoral students and their advisers to advance diversity and inclusion in the sciences.


Over the last 16 years, a growing community of doctoral students and their advisers has knit together, bound by a shared passion for science. They’re working on cutting-edge projects – such as studies of the gut microbiome, epigenetic mechanisms, and anti-cancer immunotherapeutics – and they’re trying to change the culture of science along the way.

Now, another 45 adviser-student pairs will become part of this community as awardees of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s 2020 Gilliam Fellowships for Advanced Study. The addition of this new group brings the total number of Gilliam Fellows to 301.

“These fellows are amazing scientists,” says Sonia Zárate, an HHMI program officer. “They are doing incredible work in their fields, and their advisers and institutions are notable in their commitment to creating inclusive scientific spaces.”

HHMI created the Gilliam program in 2004 in honor of the late James H. Gilliam, Jr., a charter trustee of HHMI who spent his life nurturing excellence and diversity in science and education. The Gilliam program seeks to increase the diversity of scientists at the college and university faculty level by supporting students who will become scientific leaders, says David Asai, HHMI’s senior director for science education.

For up to three years, each adviser-student pair will receive an annual award totaling $50,000. Advisers will participate in a year of mentor training, where they’ll learn about cultural identities and how to listen and engage across cultures. And fellows will be invited to attend the annual Gilliam meeting and scientific meetings at HHMI headquarters.

Asai and Zárate hope that supporting these fellows, as well as training their mentors, will foster an environment where students from racial, ethnic, or other groups underrepresented in the sciences can thrive. “These students are a force,” Asai says. “There’s real power in this community.”

HHMI spoke with Asai and Zárate to learn more about the Gilliam community, the culture of science, and what the Gilliam program has planned for the near future.

Meet the 2020 Gilliam Fellows


What is the Gilliam program trying to accomplish?

Asai: On one level, the Gilliam program is simply trying to identify some outstanding graduate students and support and encourage them. On another level, we are working with the students’ advisers to help them build a better culture.

Zárate: This is not a traditional program where we award a fellowship to a student. We award adviser-student pairs. These advisers are committed to their students and committed to creating a healthy academic ecosystem.

What do you mean by “academic ecosystem”?

Asai: It includes the students, the work they’re doing, the faculty, the dynamics in the lab and in the department. It includes expectations, and the attitude toward how students fit in – it’s the whole training environment and culture in which students find themselves.

Zárate: We know that this culture can be unhealthy. It can be so hypercompetitive that it is toxic. It doesn’t take into account that scientists have lives outside of the lab. It doesn’t take into account that we’re humans with complex identities, which can include being a parent, having to care for others, or having to work while in school. We have normalized and take great pride in saying, “I’ve been working for 12 hours straight.” But this isn’t healthy for anyone, and it’s not good for science.

A healthy academic ecosystem recognizes and values the complexity of each one of these scientists. Science can benefit from this. Bringing all that complexity to the scientific realm means we’d be more innovative, more creative, and more collaborative in the work that we do.

How can the Gilliam program help with this?

Zárate: One thing we do is 30 hours of mentorship skills development with the fellows’ advisers. The training encourages advisers to reflect on their own cultural identities and experiences and gain confidence engaging with mentees outside of research.

We’re hoping this helps advisers create a healthy environment for grad students – one where they feel comfortable admitting that their personal priorities are just as important as their academic and professional priorities.

Asai: We need to be paying more attention to how a student feels when she’s in the lab. Does she feel like she belongs there? Are there clear rules about behavior? What do you do when there is conflict? Mental and emotional health are important aspects of this.

How does the Gilliam program plan to support mental health?

Zárate: With the coronavirus pandemic, and the pandemic of racism in this country – this past year has been a lot. Students have reached their breaking point and have issued a call to action. It’s really on us to fix the environment so they can focus their energy on doing the science they love. One way we are doing this is through the programming planned for our virtual annual meeting in September. We’ll focus on promoting well-being and removing the stigma around mental health.

What does a successful program look like to you?

Asai: I think the value we add is this community of students. At any one time, there are about 120 to 130 fellows being funded through this program. They’re coming together, supporting each other – they’re part of a thriving, amazing network of scientists that know how to connect with one another.

Zárate: One of the nice things about this community is that they’re able to engage in challenging conversations about race and systemic oppression in science. This is what we’re trying to grow and create everywhere – this ability to have dialogues across groups.

Asai: We hope to have a positive effect on the students’ advisers, too. They’re exposed to cultural awareness in mentoring and the value of being a good mentor. Advisers mentor many students throughout their careers; over time, this training can have an impact.

I hope that an initiative like the Gilliam program serves as a model for other universities and funders, because then, that combined effort could have a much larger effect on the academic ecosystem.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


2020 Gilliam Fellows and Advisers


Jessica Aguilar

University of California, Berkeley
Thesis Adviser: Noah Whiteman

Aurora Alvarez-Buylla

Stanford University
Thesis Adviser: Lauren O’Connell

Katherine Aracena

The University of Chicago
Thesis Adviser: Luis Barreiro

Marissa Baccas

Cornell University
Thesis Adviser: Kelly Liu

Erika Bueno

University of Vermont
Thesis Adviser: Yolanda Chen

Jillybeth Burgado

Salk Institute for Biological Studies/University of California, San Diego
Thesis Adviser: Nicola Allen

Clara Cano

University of California, Los Angeles
Thesis Adviser: Kathrin Plath

Daniel Cardozo Pinto

Stanford University School of Medicine
Thesis Adviser: Robert Malenka

Nicole Claiborne

University of California, Davis
Thesis Adviser: Karen Zito

Alvin Crespo-Bellido

Rutgers University, Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences
Thesis Adviser: Siobain Duffy

Ryan Daniels

Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania
Thesis Adviser: Robert Mauck

Briana Davis

Duke University School of Medicine
Thesis Adviser: John Rawls

Ulises Diaz

University of California, San Francisco
Thesis Adviser: Wallace Marshall

Nadia Fernandez

University of Massachusetts Amherst
Thesis Adviser: Lisa Komoroske

Nina Marie Garcia

Duke University
Thesis Adviser: James Alvarez

Andrea Guerrero

Brandeis University
Thesis Adviser: Gina Turrigiano

Franklyn Hall

The Johns Hopkins University
Thesis Adviser: Sharon Gerecht

Michael Hopkins

The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine
Thesis Adviser: Seth Margolis

Lillian Horin

Harvard Medical School
Thesis Adviser: Timothy Mitchison

Pamela Johnson

University of Kansas
Thesis Adviser: Jennifer Robinson

Ilenna Jones

University of Pennsylvania
Thesis Adviser: Konrad Kording

Kody Mansfield

New York University School of Medicine
Thesis Adviser: Shruti Naik

Matthew Maxwell

Salk Institute for Biological Studies/University of California, San Diego
Thesis Adviser: Diana Hargreaves

Hernán Méndez

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine
Thesis Adviser: Kathleen Caron

Jorge Moreno

Princeton University
Thesis Adviser: Ricardo Mallarino

Thomas Mota

Cedars-Sinai Medical Center
Thesis Adviser: Ritchie Ho

Priscila Muñoz-Sandoval

University of California, San Francisco
Thesis Adviser: K. Mark Ansel

Sofia Neiral

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine
Thesis Adviser: Thomas Kash

Nghia Nguyen

Harvard University
Thesis Adviser: Mark Andermann

Jacob Ortega

University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center/Baylor College of Medicine
Thesis Adviser: Swathi Arur

Ana Ortiz

The University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center
Thesis Adviser: Genevieve Konopka

Miguel Pacheco

The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine
Thesis Adviser: Rachel Green

Thibaut Pardo-Garcia

University of Michigan
Thesis Adviser: Monica Dus

Jacqueline Peña

University of Georgia
Thesis Adviser: Douda Bensasson

Gabriella Perez

Baylor College of Medicine
Thesis Adviser: Joanna Jankowsky

Gabriella Robertson

Vanderbilt University
Thesis Adviser: Vivian Gama

Martin Rodriguez

Wake Forest School of Medicine of Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center
Thesis Adviser: Graça Almeida-Porada

German Rojas

Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center/University of Washington, Seattle
Thesis Adviser: Aakanksha Singhvi

Jessica Schwarz

Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania
Thesis Adviser: Amita Sehgal

Candilianne Serrano-Zayas

University of Michigan Medical School
Thesis Adviser: Manoj Puthenveedu

Mariluz Soula

The Rockefeller University
Thesis Adviser: Kivanc Birsoy

Alana Van Dervort

Harvard University
Thesis Adviser: Douglas Melton

Carlos Vasquez

University of California, San Diego
Thesis Adviser: Alexis Komor

Sheena Vasquez

Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Thesis Adviser: Catherine Drennan

Santiago Yori Restrepo

University of California, Berkeley
Thesis Adviser: Andreas Martin