Published November 7, 2022
By Dirk Hoffman
UB’s Visiting Future Faculty Program (VITAL) returned for an encore as six outstanding doctoral students visited the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences as part of an initiative to increase the number of faculty at UB from traditionally underrepresented populations in North America.
The six were part of 34 students who represented the university’s second cohort of VITAL scholars, under the guidance of UB’s Office of Inclusive Excellence, which is within UB’s Office of the Provost.
Visiting Future Faculty Week is part cultural exchange, part scholarship. VITAL participants engage with UB faculty and students, meet other scholars in the program and learn about the many advantages of living in Western New York.
“The new Visiting Future Faculty Program is an innovative initiative that is helping the Jacobs School make progress in its goal to increase the diversity of its faculty,” said Allison Brashear, MD, MBA, UB’s vice president for health sciences and dean of the Jacobs School. “Recruiting the finest faculty talent from the most diverse pool of candidates is a critical step that UB is taking toward becoming a Top 25 public research university."
During their four-day visit Oct. 17-20, the six scholars presented their research, visited with faculty members and toured research spaces, both at the Jacobs School and at UB’s Clinical and Translational Research Center.
Dubocovich says the program is important in that “it is a way to spread the news to these outstanding graduate students that UB is the place to be when looking for faculty positions.”
“We are a place that welcomes everyone with a sense of fairness, inclusion and equality,” she added.
In her talks with the students, Dubocovich highlighted a number of facilities and programs focused on research and mentoring, including UB’s Clinical and Translational Science Institute (CTSI), which has received $37.6 million in funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) since 2015 and serves as the hub of the Buffalo Translational Consortium.
Dubocovich is the director of the Workforce Development Core in the CTSI.
She is also principal investigator and program leader of the CTSI K Scholar Mentored Career Development Award Program, which provides junior faculty members with 75 percent protected time for research.
Dubocovich also outlined a number of programs she has initiated at UB for graduate and undergraduate students — including the Collaborative Learning and Integrated Mentoring in the Biosciences (CLIMB) programs, the Initiative for Maximizing Student Development (IMSD) and the Institute for Strategic Echancement of Educational Diversity (iSEED).
“UB is a very interactive place where we keep high standards and produce high-quality research,” she said.
Jennifer A. Surtees, PhD, associate professor of biochemistry and co-director of the Genome, Environment and Microbiome (GEM) Community of Excellence, was among the faculty members who spoke to the students about UB’s research efforts.
Her talk focused on community and convergence and how it relates to research at UB.
“When I talk about community, I mean within departments in the Jacobs School and within the university and also extending into our community outside of the university,” she said. “Convergence is the bringing together of different disciplines and learning to working together in teams across disciplines at different levels.”
Surtees spoke about multidisciplinary approaches to understanding genome stability and outlined some of her research involving DNA mismatch repair (MMR).
“I am really interested in how our bodies, how our cells, have evolved to detect and repair DNA damage,” she said.
Surtees, who has been co-director of GEM since 2015, touted its collaborative nature and its outreach efforts.
“What’s really critical about this is it integrates research, education and engagement,” she noted. “We’ve built an infrastructure in terms of support of researchers and educators.”
“We’ve worked to provide the seed funding to lay the foundation for research and genomic literacy specifically, to build a culture that values and supports these interactions and sharing among the disciplines.”
Four VITAL scholars from the University of Texas at El Paso were available to speak about their experiences during the UB visit and all of them noted how impressed they were with many aspects of the university.
“Overall, I think it is a fascinating place. They highlight the excellence of the research being conducted here,” said Israel Garcia-Carachure, a behavioral neuroscience doctoral student.
Minerva Rodriguez, a doctoral candidate in psychology, noted her “experience was great.”
“I definitely feel welcomed by these faculty,” she said. “This felt like a place that I could thrive in. I didn’t feel at any moment that I would not fit in.”
Anapaula Themann, a doctoral candidate in psychology, said she was skeptical before visiting UB , but was quickly won over by the “genuineness of all the faculty and administrators.”
“Many diversity programs fall short in actually doing what they say they are going to do for underrepresented minorities,” she said. “But I’ve understood that the people that we’ve met at UB are the institution in the sense that they really want to ensure that they are bringing more underrepresented minorities to work here, to thrive here, to start their careers here.”
Veronika Espinoza, a doctoral candidate in psychology and behavioral neuroscience, said she was also skeptical at first, wondering ‘are they trying to ensure that their diversity numbers go up or are they interested in us as individuals and our input into science and society?”’
She said after speaking with Jacobs School faculty and staff members, “it solidified the wants for diversity and the genuineness of how they want to help us along our way, not only in our future careers, but in our next steps in life.”
On the topic of recruiting and retaining a more diverse faculty, the students gave UB high marks.
“I was happy to hear UB talking about not only recruiting talent that looks like us, but also creating programs that retain students, and retain faculty that are underrepresented,” Garcia-Carachure said.
He mentioned the idea of “cluster hires” as a technique he had not heard of previously.
“Apparently, the National Institutes of Health has been talking about how effective that is so it’s refreshing that UB is actually taking that approach in considering retention,” Garcia-Carchure said. “Because anyone can recruit talent, but the hard part is retaining them.”
Themann was encouraged that Jacobs School faculty members “listened to us, to hear what we think, because we are going to be those future faculty.”
“And although there is still work to be done, you can see that there is progress being made,” Rodriguez said. “They are honest about it.”
“The students’ research presentations were easily some of the best I have ever seen. I have never seen students so well prepared,” Dietz said. “I have interviewed other people for faculty positions and they have been less prepared and less well thought out in their questions and thoughts.”
“If you met with them and listened to their talks, there was no question they are going to be superstars,” he added. “We have this great ability to promulgate these pipelines and recruit these individuals and we really need to take advantage of it, because if we don’t, somebody else will.”
Dietz said the students were interested in hearing not only about UB’s efforts to recruit more diverse faculty, but also what it intends to do to retain them.
“They are interested in being part of the change, not being just a number toward change,” he said. “They are interested in being participants rather than being passive in the university’s cultural shift.”
Dietz said the students embraced the idea of cluster hires that UB is looking to implement.
“In looking at some of the things we need to do to increase diverse faculty, we need to do that in a way that is supportive, and bringing in people that can be a cohort of individuals who can really advance our science, our research, our community outreach and our community engagement,” he said.
“They were extremely excited about Dr. Brashear’s vision for the medical school, that we are an agent of outreach and we are a community partner. We serve the community that we live and work in. And that community was part of the strategic strengths of the medical school.”
“That’s very different than just an average plan about enhancing diversity,” Dietz said. “This is about engaging the community, welcoming the community in and going out into the community as graduate students and postdocs and incorporating people interested in research that can make an impact.”
The scholars also learned about Buffalo’s history as they traveled through the city on a tour guided by Alfred Price, associate professor emeritus in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning, School of Architecture and Planning.
Their visit also included a trip to Niagara Falls and concluded with a tour and reception/dinner at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Darwin Martin House.
“VITAL directly supports UB’s mission to promote a culture of equity and inclusion, and recruit a diverse faculty,” says Jacqueline Hollins, interim vice provost for inclusive excellence.
“The program provides opportunities for PhD scholars from historically underrepresented backgrounds to present and receive feedback on their research and engage with each other and with UB staff, faculty and students.”
“Our hope is that the VITAL alumni will recognize UB as an affirming and inclusive community, and that they will become lifelong ambassadors for the university,” Hollins says. “This enriching experience enabled scholars to highlight their groundbreaking research, expand their network of peers, foster relationships with innovative faculty members and experience Buffalo’s rich cultural heritage.”
Along with UB and the Office of the Provost, the program was sponsored by the Jacobs School and the departments of Biochemistry, and Pharmacology and Toxicology.