Amplifying the Need for More Diverse Role Models in STEM

Sophia Ononye-Onyia, PhD, MPH, MBA


July 14, 2022

In my first article as a WebMD contributor, I asked a rhetorical question in regard to the social determinants of health: "Are socioeconomically disadvantaged individuals at higher risk for virtually all diseases due to lower access and prioritization?" African American health has been marginalized for centuries, and it will take concerted efforts to facilitate sustainable change in minority health.

In particular, access has always been problematic for African Americans who still face significant barriers to care that range from a limited number of culturally sensitive and diverse healthcare providers, to unreliable transportation and social support. One way to help build trust, which is integral to improving health outcomes, is by advocating for more role models in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) to help fan the flames amid a highly competitive social media era.

Mounting evidence suggests that when physicians and patients share the same race or ethnicity, it improves overall health outcomes, including quantitative, measurable factors such as medication adherence and cholesterol screening, while also reducing implicit physician bias.

Yet, despite all we know, Black students accounted for only 7% of the life science degrees awarded for the 2017-2018 academic year amid heightened demand for careers in the life sciences and STEM. Consequently, there is a need to bolster efforts toward recruiting, training, and showcasing diverse role models in STEM who can help inspire interest in life science and healthcare careers for Black communities and other underrepresented groups.

A STEM education is foundational and advantageous for many careers in the healthcare and life science industry. However, Black Americans comprise only 4% of biotechnology company workforces although they make up over 13% of the US population. Hence, there is a distinct need for increased visibility of influential life science leaders who can serve as positive role models that can help create excitement around science, particularly for African Americans.

Many prominent life science organizations such as Novartis, Bristol Myers Squibb, Pfizer, and the Alliance for Regenerative Medicine (ARM) have pledged to improve their diversity efforts through opportunities such as providing early career internships for African American students and supporting diverse clinical training programs.

A 2020 research report conducted by equity champions Coqual (formerly Center for Talent Innovation), in partnership with the world's largest advocacy association, Biotechnology Innovation Organization, demonstrates that organizations of all sizes can positively impact diversity and inclusion "when it is pursued with genuine intention, effort, communication and investment."

At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, I launched the Amplifying Scientific Innovation Video Podcast to ignite excitement about STEM and showcase the significance of science advocacy, health equity, and influential leadership through video interviews with acclaimed C-level and senior life science executives. The pervasive need for more diversity in the biopharmaceutical talent pipeline has been a cornerstone of the series, as exemplified by Janet Lynch Lambert, CEO of ARM, the leading international advocacy organization dedicated to realizing the promise of regenerative medicines and advanced therapies.

In Season 3, Episode 9, Lambert discussed the rationale for creating the Grow RegenMed internship program, which started placing Black students at member organizations for internships in summer 2021: "It can be lonely to be the only Black professional in Company X or Patient Advocacy group Y and that can be tough, so that's a lot of what gave us this impetus to really create a class of interns to a community of existing professionals in the space."

Excitingly, since the launch of its internship program, over 30 leading organizations are supporters of the ARM program and include the National Hemophilia Foundation, BioMarin, Tmunity, and Atara.

Notably, Atara's former Global Head of Commercial, Derrell Porter, MD, recently founded his first startup, Cellevolve Bio, a cell therapy development and commercialization company that is headquartered in San Francisco, a leading bioscience hub. Black-led startups like Cellevolve often face additional hurdles in fundraising as a result of limited diversity in venture capital firms. It is important to highlight that 8 out of 10 Black-owned businesses fail within the first 18 months. Additionally, less than 4% of the estimated 900,000 healthcare companies are Black-owned, with 41% of Black founders saying their company was bootstrapped.

In a recent CNBC article, Porter discussed the significance of having a fellow African American venture partner in Marcus Whitney, founder and managing partner of JumpStart Nova, the first Black healthcare venture fund in America. "Without Marcus … taking the bet on Cellevolve and me personally, I mean, we never might have gotten a company off the ground," he said. A rise in the number of Black-owned and/or Black-led healthcare venture funds like Jumpstart Nova can help to propel innovation by providing access to Black healthcare founders.

Undoubtedly, Black biotech founders and leaders can play a significant role in influencing and advancing minority health. For example, they can help to prioritize diseases that disproportionately affect African Americans and/or advocate for more diverse talent pools.

Ted Love, MD, is an African American, Yale-educated CEO of Global Blood Therapeutics (GBT), a biopharmaceutical company whose mission is predicated on the historical lack of understanding and attention given to sickle cell disease (SCD), which affects 100,000 Americans, according to CDC data. Yet until the recent FDA approval of GBT's medicine, which is the first for SCD, therapeutic innovation and access to care has significantly lagged despite the fundamental cause of SCD being understood for decades. This is yet more evidence in support of the need for igniting excitement and sustaining interest in STEM for African Americans and other underrepresented groups in STEM and healthcare overall. Moreover, scientific innovation is integral to providing hope to all patients and caregivers — roles that we are all guaranteed to play at some point in our lives.

An inherent challenge that I have faced at every stage of my career has been the lack of role models who look like me and who are willing to invest in my professional advancement. Prioritizing diversity should be imperative as it helps to foster innovation and knowledge in any industry. Moreover, diverse role models can help to ignite excitement and interest in STEM that will help to pave the way for future talent while bolstering innovation through the power of thought diversity. So, despite the proclivity for capitalism, life science and healthcare organizations must strive to invest in its pipeline diversity while also supporting future STEM talent. There is ample opportunity to make a sustainable difference.

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About Dr Sophia Ononye-Onyia
Sophia Ononye-Onyia is the founder and CEO of The Sophia Consulting Firm, a diversity certified (NMSDC, WBENC) scientific communications consultancy. She is the creator and host of her company's Amplifying Scientific Innovation video podcast on YouTube. The interview series has received over 1.2 million views and showcased 64 acclaimed C-level executives, inclusive of WebMD's chief medical officer, since its launch at the height of COVID-19. Dr Ononye-Onyia is NACD Directorship Certified and serves on the Daré Bioscience Board of Directors and as a Yale Entrepreneur in Residence. For details, visit and follow her on YouTube, LinkedIn, and Twitter.


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