People of Asian and Pacific Islander descent number about 24.2 million in the United States today. They make up 13% of the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) workforce, and many play critical roles in global research. Even so, ongoing analyses, including a recent report by the Pew Research Center, show that progress is still needed to achieve gender, racial, and ethnic diversity within STEM fields.
In recognition of Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month, celebrated throughout May, members of the Pew Scholars Program in the Biomedical Sciences and Pew-Stewart Scholars Program for Cancer Research recently talked about their latest investigations and how to promote diversity within STEM. They are among the promising leaders playing an important role in shaping the future of the scientific community.
The COVID-19 pandemic challenged many researchers to adapt their lab and teaching environments, often within a matter of weeks. Take, for example, 2019 Pew scholar Gene-Wei Li, an immigrant from Taiwan and an associate professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
Last year, in response to the pandemic, Li had to adapt quickly to mentoring and advising his MIT students remotely, while home-schooling his two children through that spring. Despite these challenges, researchers in his lab continued to investigate how protein production is regulated in bacteria. Scientists have long thought that the genetic code from DNA is transcribed into RNA in these tiny organisms and then translated into proteins in closely coupled steps. Although this was considered a defining feature of bacterial gene expression, Li and his team found that some bacteria operate under different rules.
They recently demonstrated that in the bacterium Bacillus subtilis, the RNA polymerase enzyme that transcribes DNA to RNA does not move in step with the ribosome, the cell machinery that makes RNA into proteins. Instead, the polymerase moves almost twice as fast as the ribosome. That leads to what the researchers call “runaway” transcription, and may help reveal distinct ways to survey and control how much RNA is made. This finding overturns a fundamental assumption about how bacteria make proteins, providing new insights into the different ways that genes are regulated and the diversity of bacterial species.
For the work environment in Li’s lab, MIT recognized him in late 2020 with its “Committed to Caring” distinction, noting his dedication to fostering a supportive environment. Li’s students nominated him in recognition of his efforts to craft an inclusive lab environment, where they said they are treated as equals and encouraged to share diverse perspectives.
“As a first-generation immigrant,” Li said recently, “everything you do at or outside work is a new experience that takes trial and error. I truly enjoy this process as it is just like doing science at an uncharted frontier. I am also blessed to have inspiring role models.”
Born in India, Aashish Manglik, a 2018 Pew scholar, lived in Saudi Arabia as a child before his family immigrated to Des Moines, Iowa. While at Washington University in St. Louis as an undergraduate, Manglik discovered his passion for science.
“My interest in pursuing science more broadly translates as a drive toward doing important work that may improve the lives of people all around the world,’’ he said. “For the next generation of scientists, we need to work hard to truly understand what barriers prevent underrepresented groups from engaging in STEM. Many of these are not obvious.”
Now at the University of California, San Francisco as an assistant professor of pharmaceutical chemistry, Manglik has applied his protein science research to address COVID-19. As part of a team of scientists, Manglik looked to llamas, camels, and related animals for ways to neutralize the virus.
These camelids naturally produce special antibodies that are one-tenth the weight of those made by humans. These antibodies can then be engineered into nanobodies, very small fragments that retain the ability to bind target proteins. They are ideal to work with because of their small size, simple structure, and ability to be easily mass-produced.
Manglik and his team developed nanobodies to recognize SARS-CoV-2 and possibly capture the virus before it can infect humans. This kind of treatment could possibly be administered as a nasal spray to neutralize the virus or reduce the chance of transmission after a person tests positive.
Shruti Naik, a 2020 Pew-Stewart scholar, moved at age 12 from India to the United States and discovered her passion for science through a documentary on biology. Now at NYU Langone Health, Naik is investigating whether previous inflammatory reactions can predispose tissues to be more susceptible to cancer.
Cells can retain memory from previous injuries to improve healing, but if the process goes awry, the response can have undesirable consequences. For example, research by Naik’s lab has found that in mice, even after tissue injury had completely subsided, exposure to cancer-causing elements resulted in more skin tumors than in skin with no previous inflammation. Examining the link between inflammation and cancer could reveal potential biological markers for predicting a person’s cancer risk.
As an Indian American researcher, Naik has advocated for increased diversity in STEM. For example, as a postdoctoral researcher at Rockefeller University, she helped to grow the Women in Science at Rockefeller (WISeR) program to more than 250 members, and led a weekly breakfast series to bring together graduate students, postdocs, and prominent female scientists. For her work, she has received numerous awards, including the L’Oréal For Women in Science Award, Blavatnik Award for Young Scientists, and the NIH Director’s New Innovator Award.
“Creating an inclusive culture [means] acknowledging and valuing that another person’s lived experiences may be different from our own, being mindful of our own biases and how they can influence our actions, offering support networks and mentoring, and sponsoring individuals from different backgrounds for academic and professional opportunities,” Naik said. “Institutional and individual commitment to diversity and inclusion will allow people from all walks of life to share the scientific spotlight and ultimately advance biomedicine.”
Kara Coleman directs The Pew Charitable Trusts’ biomedical programs, including the biomedical scholars, Pew-Stewart Scholars for Cancer Research, and Latin American fellows programs, and Jennifer Villa is a principal associate supporting the programs.