For more than a decade, Steve Finkel has been working to diversify the field of biological sciences.
“It’s not a secret, academic research departments don’t look like America,” said Finkel, associate professor of biological sciences and deputy director of the USC Center of Excellence in Genomic Science. “PhD programs don’t look like America, and the faculty sure as heck don’t look like America. So we need to figure out a way to make research look like America.”
He’s made it his mission to bring diversity into his lab and the field as a whole by securing more than $34 million in National Institutes of Health (NIH) grants for programs targeting underrepresented minorities.
Exposure is key, Finkel explained. “Our solution is to help bring these students into basic research environments and expose them to something they most likely have not been exposed to.”
Finkel, a molecular biologist who joined the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences faculty in 2000, was instrumental in securing grants from the NIH to create the USC Center of Excellence in Genomic Science, one of nine national centers with such funding. The grant mandates that centers must offer programs for African-American, Latino-American, Native American, Alaskan native and Pacific Islander students to improve the pipeline of underrepresented minorities in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields.
To date, 135 USC undergraduate and graduate students have participated in biomedical research programs. Based on surveys of student participants, about half go to medical school, a quarter pursue PhDs, and another quarter pursue master’s degrees and work in the industry.
Although Finkel doesn’t refer to himself as a mentor, it’s clear that students think of him that way.
“Dr. Finkel was very welcoming and very insightful about how I should approach my research,” said Yadira Villalvazo MS ’13, who earned her master’s in global medicine from the Keck School of Medicine of USC.
“He definitely wants you to excel and continue to grow and learn,” said Jay Porterfield, a biomedical engineering major at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering.
“He was really an asset to my experience at USC because he gave us ways to talk about science with people who have similar goals in life,” said Elizabeth Adable, a Keck School graduate who participated in the undergraduate research program for two years. “It’s an amazing program, and I love the fact that it’s really encouraging people of color to pursue careers in STEM, which is something that isn’t really highlighted in the community.”
Adable began her USC studies as a premed student, but she changed her career goals after getting hands-on lab experience doing DNA extraction and verification. She’s currently teaching high school biology as part of Teach for America while pursuing a master’s degree in education at Loyola Marymount University.
The program had a similar effect on Villalvazo. After doing lab work to study the effect of aging by experimenting with fruit flies, she took a graduate biology course to learn more.
“I was really pleasantly surprised at just how much being a part of the genomics program for undergraduates directed me in certain ways and influenced my future plans,” said Villalvazo, who is now employed as a lab assistant in the same lab she worked in as a student.
The program not only offers lab experience but also provides employment. Students receive stipends to work in the labs of their choice for 12 to 14 hours per week during the school year and 35 hours per week in the summer.
“The idea is to pay them enough hourly to show them that this is important,” Finkel said.
He encourages the participants, who are typically premed students, to try new paths by exploring science and research. Finkel himself was on the premed track as an undergraduate at the University of California, Berkeley, until a professor took him under his wing and hired him to work in a lab. That experience led Finkel to change his major to molecular biology.
“That’s what it’s been about for the last decade, trying to get talented students into a research environment so they can at least begin to consider doing something different, and being a scientist instead of being a physician is really what it comes down to, or being a physician-scientist instead of just being a physician,” he said.
When Finkel isn’t busy running the research programs, he’s a bacterial geneticist researching mechanisms of long-term survival and the evolution of bacteria. He earned a bachelor’s degree in molecular biology, a PhD in biological chemistry from the University of California, Los Angeles, School of Medicine, and was a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard Medical School.