Want to Improve Informatics? Don’t Forget About First-Generation College Grads

Guest post by Kim Unertl, PhD, Associate Professor in the Department of Biomedical Informatics, Vanderbilt University Medical Center, and Director of Graduate Studies for the Biomedical Informatics MS/PhD Program at Vanderbilt University.

Who Belongs in Informatics?

I often ask colleagues and trainees about how they decided on a career in biomedical informatics. Over the years, this question has elicited a pattern of responses often involving a chance encounter where the person discovers that there’s a field that connects computer science with health. These were topics they were interested in but weren’t sure how to combine.

Looking for a career in informatics? NLM supports research training in biomedical informatics and data science at 18 U.S. educational institutions. For more information, visit our External Programs Division Grants and Funding and Research Education Program (R25) web pages.

Much of my work now focuses on expanding access to training and career pathways in biomedical and health informatics so that more talented young people learn about informatics earlier and in a more purposeful way that helps them understand that there’s a place for them in the field. A major goal is to increase diversity in biomedical informatics so that informatics better reflects the diversity of the U.S. population and can develop more equitable innovative technology solutions to major health challenges.

One large population that could benefit from increased emphasis in recruiting and networking efforts are first-generation college students, especially those from groups under-represented in the field.

Navigating Academia without a Safety Net

The fact that I’m a successful faculty member at an R1 university (an institution that conducts high research activities) is an improbability. Neither of my parents graduated from high school. My dad earned his GED, joined the Marines, and completed a carpentry apprenticeship program thanks to the GI Bill, which provides benefits and programs to veterans. My parents shared an unshakeable belief in the importance of education for their children, but my siblings and I had to figure out how to navigate the unfamiliar world of higher education ourselves.

The whole process was very lonely, confusing and overwhelming. Even today I regularly feel like I’m missing key behind-the-scenes information about how academia and research environments work. In addition, the skills I developed in managing independently and figuring things out, although crucial in helping my educational trajectory, are not well-aligned with the collaborative nature of science.

I’m far from the only person with this experience. A large proportion of K-12 students in the United States have parents who did not complete an undergraduate degree. This affects every aspect of their educational path. Data consistently show that if you have at least one college-educated parent, you have higher odds for finishing a bachelor’s degree and completing an advanced degree, which has multiple long-term financial implications. Around 13% of the U.S. population holds an advanced degree such as a Master’s, Professional, or Doctorate. Recent studies have confirmed that the odds of a tenure-track faculty member having at least one parent with a PhD are 250 times higher than having a parent without a PhD. The gap is further compounded when these faculty members are also part of other under-represented groups in categories such as gender, race, and ethnicity.

Why Does This Matter?

All of us involved in biomedical research and academic training should care about this reality. Every time a career path is closed to someone, we are missing out on what that person could contribute to their field, to patients, to public health, to their communities, and to the world. The systems that serve to lock under-represented and first-generation students out of opportunities keep amazing and talented individuals from achieving their dreams and goals. The next idea that revolutionizes medical care, cures a disease, invents a device, or identifies ways to address health equity issues may never have a chance to blossom because a student might not see an academic or research career as a viable option. We all lose as a result.

You Have a Role to Play

The good news is that we can all help to improve access to the field for diverse, first-generation students and trainees. We can all open doors to higher education opportunities and scientific career paths, starting with building connections with K-12 students. Mentoring high school and undergraduate students through the Vanderbilt Biomedical Informatics Summer Program (VBISP) has been some of the most enjoyable and worthwhile work of my career.

Developing and supporting programs that provide access to research opportunities through internships is another way we can open doors into scientific research for more people. This can take many forms – running an internship program, serving as a mentor for a summer intern, presenting a talk at a seminar, or financially supporting high school students’ participation in informatics summer programs. Every contribution has the potential to make a significant difference.

We also know that opening doors is not enough. Once students begin an undergraduate or graduate STEM degree program, we need to ensure that training environments are equitable and inclusive. First-generation students need support to help navigate higher education and to start out on their research careers. Information that many take for granted about how to navigate academia and research environments can present an isolating mystery for a first-generation student. Many feel as if they do not belong. Making what has been described as the hidden curriculum of higher education more transparent can help students move forward on a pathway towards a successful career and eliminate some of those feelings of isolation. Addressing topics such as coping with imposter syndrome and collaborating with a mentor can provide skills and confidence, as can regularly checking in about mental health and connecting students with peers with shared experiences.

First-generation students have so much that they can contribute to science. Leaving them sitting on the sidelines when science needs everyone on the playing field is a loss for all of us.

Dr. Unertl gratefully acknowledges Ellen de Graffenreid, Mia Garchitorena, and Jessica Ancker for feedback on drafts of this post.

In addition to her work at Vanderbilt University and the Vanderbilt University Medical Center, Dr. Unertl directs the VBISP and is co-director for the American Medical Informatics Association High School Scholars Program. Her research focuses on interactions between people, process, and technology in health care, especially related to clinical workflow, and on development of new pathways into biomedical informatics.

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