For CNC faculty Sheri Mizumori, strengthening the diversity of the neuroscience community nationally isn’t just about recruitment, it’s about retention. The statistics on retention of underrepresented scientists are not promising – as you move up the hierarchy of academia, from undergraduates to graduate students to postdocs to early-career faculty to tenured faculty, representation of scientists from racial and ethnic minorities and scientists with disabilities decreases at each stage. Despite institutional calls for change, repeated microaggressions and macroaggressions continue to be cited by marginalized faculty as part of a toxic culture that caused them to leave academia. Mizumori and other UW faculty involved in BRAINS (Broadening the Representation of Academic Investigators in Neuroscience), an NIH-funded program that was recently renewed for another five years of funding see overcoming and changing this culture as an important part of professional development for underrepresented early career faculty to thrive in the sciences.

BRAINS, initially funded in 2011, is a cohort-based professional development program with a unique philosophy. Every two years, BRAINS accepts a small cohort of post-doctorate, pre-tenure neuroscientists from underrepresented racial or ethnic groups or with disabilities to attend in-person training as BRAINS Fellows (recently, they have also expanded to accept a broader group of Affiliates for a virtual-only training series). Fellows come to the Pacific Northwest for an intensive retreat and training on Bainbridge Island. At this training, senior panelists from across neuroscience with experience in diversity and equity issues are invited to discuss topics in these areas, share their personal stories, and participate in discussions with Fellows.

Of  the 144 Fellows who have participated in BRAINS, 97% are still in careers in the sciences – numbers that blow the national average retention of underrepresented faculty (closer to 50%) out of the water. Mizumori is particularly proud of the low attrition rate of BRAINS fellows from the sciences. “One of the variables that we assess in the initial [application] process is the extent to which the person has been supported. Often, if they are not, they are thinking of leaving science, leaving neuroscience, or just leaving academia because of all of the uncertainties and challenges that they face. We feel like those folks are the ones that would most benefit from the BRAINS program,” she says. Achieving such high retention among a pool of accomplished scientists most vulnerable to leaving science, has been a major success of the program. “We’re really, really proud of that,” Mizumori says, “especially given where we started.”

BRAINS has a unique approach to professional development that focuses on community building and support. “A lot of times when you go to a [professional development] program, you learn about things like time management and such, and then you’re expected to go back to your job and implement the new rules right?” Mizumori explains. “Well, when you get there, it’s really not so easy sometimes to translate.” BRAINS attempts to circumvent this problem with more consistent long-term contact with participants, who continue to be involved in peer mentorship groups and social events within and across cohorts after their intensive in-person community building. To maintain this contact and encourage retention, Mizumori says, “we realized early on that a critical contributor to retention is this sense of community and sense of family.”

BRAINS strives to create a community that allows Fellows to bring all their different identities – including racial, ethnic, cultural, ability status, and scientific identities – to professional development topics. While a traditional program might emphasize a “professionalism” that doesn’t account for intersecting identities, BRAINS instead emphasizes these intersections themselves as a key part of the experiences of its participants. At initial symposium and beyond, Mizumori says, participants are encouraged to “problem-solve and discuss and vent…about things that they might not want to talk about otherwise in public.” This not only allows participants to create the family-like bonds that keep them involved in BRAINS beyond the training, but also provides a sounding board and support system for encountering some of the professional barriers that may be unique to groups that are currently underrepresented in the sciences.

This nontraditional approach to professional development is what makes the program, as Mizumori puts it, so “sticky.” But this philosophy and its impact can be difficult to describe. Over this five-year round of funding, Mizumori says that BRAINS will focus on program evaluation, more concretely describing “what works, what doesn’t work, why it works, and so on.” Working with the BRAINS leadership team [including Drs. Cara Margherio, Assistant Director of UW’s Center for Evaluation and Research for Stem Equity (CERSE), Joyce Yen (Director of the UW ADVANCE Center for Institutional Change) and Claire Horner-Devine (founder of Counterspace Consulting)], BRAINS hopes to develop a set of best practices for retention of newly-recruited underrepresented faculty. The goal is “not just to bring more folks into neuroscience and have them stay there,” Mizumori says, “but understand why they stay there.” This way, the success of BRAINS could provide a template for others who want to make the sciences broadly, and neuroscience more specifically, inclusive, welcoming, and meaningfully supportive for a diverse new generation of scientists.

For more information on BRAINS, visit their website.