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ASP Ambassadors Program:

Engineered Problems Require Engineered Solutions.

by Brian T. Murphy

This article originally appeared in the American Society of Pharmacognosy Fall 2019 ASP Newsletter

Access to scientific opportunity is not equal in the United States. The National Science Foundation (NSF) reported that underrepresented minority (URM) populations are employed in the scientific workforce at substantially lower rates than their presence in the US population. Conversely, it is estimated that 51% of the science and engineering workforce is white male, a substantially higher rate than their presence in the US population. This is a direct reflection of over a century of discriminatory social engineering that restricted access to educational, legislative, judicial, housing, and social welfare resources to communities of color and other URM populations.


Of course, the ASP does not exist in a vacuum. Within a margin of error, the composition of our membership is reflective of the overall heavily biased STEM workforce in the US, and in particular lacks scientists of color. Thus, the challenge of including URM populations and giving equitable access to opportunity in the ASP is our problem that we need to solve.


The survival of our discipline relies on new ideas. The effort to diversify our membership does not need to rest solely on moral grounds. There are specific strategic incentives that result from incorporating scientists from diverse backgrounds. It is well documented that gender, ethnic, racial, and socioeconomic diversity (among other categories) have positive effects on the impact of research performed in a given environment by providing access to a broader toolbox of methods and ideas. Nature dedicated an entire issue toward documenting the benefits of diversity and inclusion toward scientific research.


On a diverse team, individuals are forced to think outside the traditional dogmas that guide their practices.  This places the team in a more favorable position to design innovative solutions. Scientific American highlighted additional benefits of assembling diverse groups:


“This is not only because people with different backgrounds bring new information. Simply interacting with individuals who are different forces group members to prepare better, to anticipate alternative viewpoints and to expect that reaching consensus will take effort.”


The natural products discipline is faced with several grand challenges, from determining how much remaining chemical space contains new structural scaffolds, to designing a greener and more comprehensive synthetic toolbox, to realizing the full potential of genome mining to discover new drugs, among other challenges. Each requires atypical thinking and innovative ideas that will be inspired when diverse groups of scientists team up, debate, and build. Fostering this environment and setting an example for other STEM disciplines should be the ASP’s mission in the coming five years.


The ASP’s greatest strength is simultaneously its major shortcoming. I have been a member of the ASP since 2002. Speaking candidly, we are very much a tight knit, “homegrown” society. I mean this in a positive way. Many maintain strong ties with one another over the years. We often exchange graduate students, postdocs, and technicians. A wonderful consequence of this is that students are able to benefit from multiple pathways of career advancement that are readily accessible through existing social and professional networks. Many of the young professors in our field have in the past worked directly under other more senior ASP members; again, this is a positive phenomenon. However, in particular this recruitment pipeline has failed to incorporate communities of color. This cycle needs to be amended by adding additional avenues of recruitment that give us access to pools of talented scientists that we are failing to reach.


The Diversity and Inclusion Committee and the ASP Ambassadors Program. In 2014 (under President Phil Crews), President Barry O’Keefe initiated a “12-step” program to rebrand the ASP, in part to recruit a talented new generation of scientists. In 2018 President Susan Mooberry formed the Diversity and Inclusion Committee, which is co-chaired by Drs. Nadja Cech and Esther Guzman, to address issues of inequity within the ASP. One of the major initiatives of this committee was the formation of the ASP Ambassador’s Program. This program is a recruitment effort targeted at URM scientists, designed to expand our pipeline of those who engage in natural products research.


This program is at its infant stages, and much growth lies ahead of us. It is far from a comprehensive solution toward curbing inequality. A provocative discussion at the ASP meeting in Madison explored the very real challenges facing the recruitment and inclusion of URM populations into our society, including: unequal access to undergraduate research experiences, income inequality and resulting barriers toward pursuit of higher education, and inclusion into a sometimes non-inclusive culture of current graduate programs. Addressing these will require a major shift in attitude and awareness of scientists that are currently immune to these systemic obstacles.


Introducing the new ASP Ambassadors. Despite receiving many outstanding applications, the committee selected three that exhibited a unifying theme: the necessity of listening. Our three Ambassadors are Dr. Christine Salomon of the University of Minnesota, Dr. Sandra Loesgen of the University of Florida, and Katherine Zink of the University of Illinois at Chicago. Ambassadors are to develop and maintain relationships with local institutions and organizations that serve URM populations (examples include predominantly undergraduate institutions (PUIs), historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), Hispanic serving institutions (HSIs), and other institutions with official minority serving designations). Ambassadors will offer information about the possibilities of a career in natural products research to young scientists and serve as a conduit to those wishing to become involved with the ASP.


Engineered problems require engineered solutions. Our country has attempted to integrate historically segregated populations in the past, and few have stated it more eloquently and sobering than author James Baldwin, as he reflected on how society can take corrective action to undue past injustices:


“…but I think that the past is all that makes the present coherent, and further, that the past will remain horrible for exactly as long as we refuse to assess it honestly.”


Engineered problems require engineered solutions. The ASP Ambassadors Program represents a modest first step toward correcting centuries of affirmative action that gave the white male population in particular unequal access to opportunity in the US. Fortunately for our society, our path toward equity aligns a greater moral imperative, an imminent social responsibility, and a recruitment effort whose effects will substantially improve the intellectual capacity of the ASP.     

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