T H E   N I H    C A T A L Y S T     S E P T E M B E R   –  O C T O B E R   2004

NIH Black Scientists Association

by Myrna Zelaya-Quesada
Chad Womack, BSA president and senior research fellow at the VRC, is especially committed to identifying determinants of host-virus relationships that govern HIV disease in developing countries,, with a particular focus on the non-B subtypes of the virus. Additionally, along with Lauren Wood (NCI), he is co-recipient of a 2003 Bench to Bedside Award to study "The Use of 5-Fluorouracil (5-FU) in Combination with Antiretroviral Drugs as a Salvage Strategy to Overcome Drug Resistance in Heavily Treated HIV-Infected Pediatric Patients." (see "Salvage Therapy")

"It takes, I think, a strange combination of curiosity and just sheer madness to want to be a Ph.D. scientist these days," says Chad Womack, a senior research fellow in the Viral Pathogenesis Laboratory at the Vaccine Research Center. He proceeds, with humor, to list reasons why high school and college students in the United States might not be enthusiastic about a career in biomedical research.

There’s the time-in requirement to reach professional maturity—seven years to get a doctorate, another six or so in postgraduate training.

There’s the monetary return after all the training—maybe half what could be earned if one had opted for medical or dental school and private practice.

There’s no easy career path for anyone drawn to research, says Womack, whose own research interests have taken him to Morehouse School of Medicine and the Centers for Disease Control, both in Atlanta; the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston; and now the NIH.

And if the student is a member of an underrepresented minority, there’s another layer of challenge—the relative scarcity of peers and mentors with familiar faces and backgrounds.

As president this year of the NIH Black Scientists Association (BSA), Womack hopes to advance more antidotes to this sense of aloneness.

The Diggs Legacy

Members of the NIH Black Scientists Association cannot talk about the organization’s beginnings and continuing spirit without acknowledging the influence of John Diggs, former deputy director for extramural research who left NIH in 1993 but kept in close contact with his former colleagues and the founding members of the BSA.

The first annual John W. Diggs Memorial Lecture was held in July of 1995, two months after Diggs died, and continues as an intellectual highlight of the BSA’s scientific programs and a tribute to a revered member of the Black scientist community.


The BSA—Yesterday and Today

Ten years ago, an NIH Committee on the Status of Intramural Minority Scientists issued a report and recommendations aimed at attracting and retaining minority scientists to all levels of involvement at NIH. The executive summary of the report was printed in the July 1994 issue of The NIH Catalyst, along with an editorial comment from Michael Gottesman, then acting deputy director for intramural research.

The report underscored the minuscule percentage of underrepresented minorities (Black, Hispanic, Native American, and Alaskan Native) in both the tenured and untenured ranks of NIH scientists—a little more than 2 percent of tenured scientists and a little more than 5 percent of nontenured scientists, as of October 1, 1992.

A decade later, the statistics are not dramatically different (see DDIR column), but the people counted in these numbers have access to a cohesive and convivial community of NIH minority scientists—an organization that meets regularly, conducts seminars and lecture series, sponsors a scholarship program for minority Washington, D.C., high school students, runs a speakers bureau, and strengthens the personal and professional connections among its members.

That organization—the BSA—was born in the fall of 1994, on the heels of the release of the status report on NIH minority scientists. Initially called the Minority Scientists Association, the name was changed the following year to represent more accurately the people who were actually working in the organization.


BSA Objectives

The BSA website notes that its members

have come together to get to know each other as people and as professionals, to promote our individual and collective professional advancement, and to advocate various health and scientific issues of importance to underrepresented minority communities in general and to the Black community in particular. . . . We provide information, contacts, and a sounding board on issues of importance to minority scientists, physicians, technologists, and patients. Of particular interest at NIH are issues concerning the recruitment, development, recognition, and promotion of Black scientists and clinicians, as well as the selection and care of Black patients and research subjects.

A Home Base

The BSA is a remedy against isolation, "the hub of a community," says Womack.

"It’s a place where you can let your hair down and just relax, where you can talk about science, talk about research, but also talk about other subjects that might be on your mind," Womack says. That the NIH research program houses a vibrant scientific community of all races, colors, and backgrounds is a plus. But in an area as large and productive as the NIH campus, it’s easy to get lost in your own lab, he observes, and never run into other people with whom you may have much in common.

The name notwithstanding, the BSA’s door has always been open to all members of the NIH research community, regardless of ethnic background. "I want to stress that," says Womack. "Anyone [who supports] the goals of the BSA is welcome to join" (See "BSA Objectives").

On the Agenda

Indeed, among the organization’s current objectives is expanding the membership. In addition to a general welcome to all who share similar commitments, overtures are being made to senior administrators who have not been involved in the program and to African-American scientists on the extramural side of NIH.

Additionally, BSA members are encouraged to invite friends and colleagues from their respective institutes to BSA meetings and events. Such outreach may involve others who work in NIH groups that are interested in advancing a diversity of issues while maintaining a rigorous scientific workforce. Scientific rigor, Womack emphasizes, has always been a BSA priority.

The organization is also undertaking a comprehensive survey of Black scientists on campus. Starting with its own membership, the organization will branch out and collect data on the numbers of African-Americans working in various capacities at the tenured, tenure-track, postgraduate, graduate, and undergraduate levels across NIH.

Another initiative builds on one of the BSA’s most cherished projects. Established in 1999, the Cheryl Torrence-Campbell Scholarship is offered annually to minority college-bound seniors in Washington, D.C., high schools who are pursuing a science-related major—one means to encourage that "strange combination of curiosity and just sheer madness" needed to pursue scientific research.

Accompanying the scholarship is a mentor, gratis, to guide the student through whatever educational and professional challenges may arise. The BSA intends to expand the scholarship program this year to include college and graduate students in need of support. Womack would like to see the program extend across the country.


by Myrna Zelaya-Quesada
Felicia Eason Forbes
and nine-month old Nia

Felicia Eason Forbes, a postdoctoral fellow in the lab of Robert Nussbaum at the Genetic Disease Research Branch, NHGRI, is a member of the BSA’s Cheryl Torrence-Campbell (CTC) Scholarship Committee. Eason Forbes’ research focuses on identifying genetic mutations in Lowe oculocerebrorenal syndrome, a rare X-linked disease characterized by mental retardation, seizures, congenital cataracts, and renal Fanconi syndrome. "I enjoy the day-to-day challenges of working on a project that will hopefully add to the scientific knowledge base. I also enjoy working with the brightest minds in a wonderful environment here at NIH," Eason Forbes says.

On the BSA: Eason Forbes mentors the high-school recipients of the CTC Scholarship and expects that the mentoring program will branch out to encourage more minorities at all levels of training to enter the field of research. Her enthusiasm for mentoring was fueled by her appreciation of the senior scientists and postdocs who have mentored her. "They helped mold me into a better person, and I am grateful."

Roland Owens

Roland Owens is a senior investigator/research biologist in the Molecular Biology Section of the Laboratory of Molecular and Cellular Biology, NIDDK. One of the co-founders of the BSA, Owens has been its president, vice-president, secretary, co-chair of the Speaker’s Bureau, and chair of the Career Enhancement Committee. At the bench, his group studies adeno-associated viruses and their development as gene therapy vectors in the treatment of diabetes and other diseases.

On the BSA: "The BSA enables us to network with other Black scientists and to help [each other] thrive in science. Through the network, I was able to recruit a postdoctoral fellow. He published two first-author papers and two middle-author papers with me and is now a project manager with a major pharmaceutical company. My work with the BSA’s Speaker’s Bureau allowed me to meet many of the best Black biomedical researchers in the world, many of whom I would not have met through any other mechanism. It has also allowed me to have many Black scientist friends, something I never experienced before I joined this organization."

George Redmond


George Redmond, currently BSA vice-president, is a clinical informatics expert at the NCI Cancer Therapy Evaluation Program and an advisor to the NCI Center for Bioinformatics. The BSA’s first president, Redmond was critical in developing the organization’s mission and strategic objectives for addressing the concerns and needs of the minority scientist community, particularly African-Americans.

On the BSA: "I have established lifelong relationships with people that directly contribute to public health and biomedical research. These relationships have exposed me to an ever-expanding environment of innovation in science and [have shown me] how far-reaching is the societal benefit of biomedical research . . . . [they’ve also] allowed me to gain insight into the wonders and beauty of life."

Lauren Wood


Lauren Wood is a clinical PI for the Pediatric HIV Working Group of the HIV & AIDS Malignancy Branch, NCI, and co-director of the NCI Pediatric Outpatient Clinic. Along with Chad Womack (NIAID), Wood is co-recipient of a 2003 Bench-to Bedside Award on "Use of 5-Fluorouracil (5-FU) in Combination with Antiretroviral Drugs as a Salvage Strategy to Overcome Drug Resistance in Heavily Treated HIV-Infected Pediatric Patients" (see "Salvage Therapy"). Having cared for many of her patients since they were toddlers, she says, it is especially rewarding to see their maturation into adolescents and young adults due to advances in treatment. "Adolescents with HIV have many unique issues, although they also face challenges similar to other teens with chronic illness such as asthma or diabetes."

On the BSA: "There is a real void in terms of diversity in the NIH community at the senior scientific level. I think that people need to understand that diversification of the workforce is not only necessary, it is what actually would maximize the NIH in terms of its addressing its mission to impact the health of the American public."


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