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NIH Grant Supports New Effort to Diversify the Scientific Workforce

Thornton, Hickman

The National Institutes of Health recently awarded a five-year, $540,000 grant to support a program designed by two Cleveland researchers to increase the diversity of the scientific workforce.

The Intensive Summer Education Program in Translational Research for Underrepresented Students (INSPIRE-US) will host 25 undergraduate students from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds for 10 weeks at Case Western Reserve University and its affiliated teaching hospitals – The MetroHealth System, Cleveland Clinic and University Hospitals.

This innovative research education program complements the strategic priorities of the Clinical and Translational Science Collaborative (CTSC) of Northern Ohio – a seven-year, $56.3 million grant recently awarded to Case Western Reserve to expand initiatives to improve people’s health across Northern Ohio and beyond.

The INSPIRE-US program seeks to attract students enrolled in a two- or four-year degree program, and who demonstrate an interest in a career in clinical and translational science. The first five students chosen will arrive in the summer of 2024 and will receive hands-on experience in a research lab. Along with getting training in research methods, students also will be provided career counseling and coaching and will have classroom instruction. The students will receive a stipend and support for housing.

J. Daryl Thornton, MD, MPH, a critical care specialist and pulmonologist and Director of the Division of Pulmonary, Critical Care, and Sleep Medicine and Director of the Center for Health Equity, Engagement, Education, and Research (CHEEER) at MetroHealth; and Ronald L. Hickman, Jr., PhD, RN, ACNP-BC, FAAN, The Ruth M. Anderson Professor and Associate Dean for Research at the Frances Payne Bolton School of Nursing at CWRU, wrote the grant application for the INSPIRE-US program.

The lack of racial parity has hindered the country’s ability to advance in the areas of scientific discovery, translation and innovation and equity, Hickman said.

“There is certainly a need for racial parity in the population of clinical and translational science researchers,” he said. Parity needs to be improved not only in the number of people holding positions that impact care and lead to novel drug and other therapeutic discoveries, but also in the ranks of those who hold positions that support those scientists and research professionals, he said.

What makes the INSPIRE-US program stand apart from other similar programs that exist is how Case Western Reserve and affiliated teaching hospitals plan to proactively identify potential candidates through the vast network, Thornton said. That network includes partner schools that are part of Case Western Reserve’s Graduate Student North Star Award program and the federally funded McNair Scholars Program.

Thornton and Hickman’s previously collaborated as part of the group that established the Population Health Equity Research fellowship. The two-year fellowship trains MetroHealth physicians and advanced practice providers in population health research.

In conceptualizing INSPIRE-US program, they drew from their own experiences of navigating in academic and professional spaces with few other people of color.

“A lot of people don't know that Black scientists and researchers exist,” said Thornton, referencing widespread surprise over news that a key researcher who helped develop the Moderna COVID-19 mRNA vaccine was Kizzmekia Corbertt, PhD, a Black woman.

“That just opened everyone's eyes,” he said. “I think we have an obligation to put ourselves out there and let people know that these opportunities exist that can help people become just like her.”

Mentorship and networking will be key program components. In addition to being assigned research and career mentors, students will have leadership opportunities to mentor one another.

Success in the immediate term will be exposing students to professional paths that they may not have previously considered, Thornton said. “Then we hope they go back to their schools and give more consideration to what they ultimately want to do, and what training they need to pursue – such as changing their major or taking additional pre-professional coursework – to get there.”

Further success, Hickman said, is seeing those students obtain their degrees and move into the workforce in positions related to clinical and translational science.

“That could be on the production side or could be as a support person, administrator, or in regulatory affairs,” he said. “There's a host of ways individuals can support the research mission.”

Thornton and Hickman said they would welcome the opportunity to offer the experience to more students and potentially lend their expertise in helping set the stage for INSPIRE-US programs in other parts of the country.

“Hopefully, this is just the beginning,” Thornton said. “We really would love to expand it, replicate it, and retire knowing that it’s still going on and flourishing. That would be fantastic.”

About The MetroHealth System

Founded in 1837, MetroHealth is leading the way to a healthier you and a healthier community through service, teaching, discovery, and teamwork. Cuyahoga County’s public, safety-net hospital system, MetroHealth meets people where they are, providing care through five hospitals, four emergency departments and more than 20 health centers. Each day, our nearly 9,000 employees focus on providing our community with equitable healthcare — through patient-focused research, access to care, and support services — that seeks to eradicate health disparities rooted in systematic barriers. For more information, visit