When Samantha Sechrist, a medical student at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) was looking for an opportunity to pursue her interest in research, the funding inquiry office at her school suggested an application to a “diversity supplement” grant. Not knowing exactly what that was, Samantha had an interview with Nisha Acharya, M.D. M.S, who thought she would be a good candidate for the “NIH Research Supplements to Promote Diversity in Health-Related Research” – the NIH Diversity Supplements program.
"I look for motivated individuals who have a drive to make a difference in the world through their work," explained Acharya, who mentored Samantha at UCSF. “I think this approach recognizes that passion and eagerness to learn can outweigh prior research experiences,” she says. “It's remarkable how deeply Samantha understood the background and prior research conducted in our areas of interest. She put in countless hours reading the literature, which was changing week to week during the pandemic. I could not possibly keep up. She would bring great ideas to inform and elevate our research projects."
For Samantha, this was the perfect opportunity to connect medical research, clinical care and community engagement. Her research project focused on studying the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on ocular health, shedding light on critical issues at the intersection of public health and ophthalmology, highlighting racial disparities during the pandemic. Her work was funded by the National Eye Institute (NEI).
"It was very special for me to see how a question that came directly from my mentor’s clinic could be translated into a research question that we could then try to find an answer for. This synergy between real-world challenges and academic pursuits put everything into a broader perspective for me.”
These grant supplements are added to existing research projects funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to support students with a wide range of backgrounds, allowing them to immerse themselves in research experiences that can shape their future careers.
Although the diversity supplements may be granted to individuals from high school to the faculty level, several of NEI’s recent awards have gone to research fellows and medical students who wanted to take a gap year before continuing their career paths. At this critical point in their education, students have a chance to broaden their perspectives on the shape their careers can take. It is also a time when they are able to pursue a research opportunity that may not be available later.
Donald Everett, M.A., a program director for Collaborative Clinical Research at NEI’s Division of Extramural Science Programs (DESP), notes that UCSF has historically invested in identifying candidates that are a good fit for NEI’s supplement program. “The institution has done a great job in finding students that have a genuine interest in research. And we, at NEI, make sure that the institutions we support have strong programs that focus on research and mentorship.”
In 2022, Jeremy Keenan, M.D., M.P.H, at UCSF mentored Quintin Richardson, a recent UCSF medical school graduate, through the NEI supplement program. "Quintin wanted to take a gap year between his third and fourth year of medical school and he was really enthusiastic about everything he was learning," Jeremy recalls. “Because of this supplement, Quintin had the opportunity to travel to Nepal, gaining a fresh perspective on research and patient care in a new cultural context. This exposure not only enriched Quintin's academic journey but also added a global dimension to his understanding of medical research,” says Dr. Keenan.
Richardson’s primary project evaluated the utility of optical coherence tomography (OCT) for the screening and diagnosis of diabetic retinopathy. The project was based in Nepal and utilized the infrastructure of an existing NEI-funded clinical trial - the Village-Integrated Eye Worker Trial II (ViewII). Other similar projects involved finding and validating tools that could be used for ophthalmologic disease screening in low-resource settings where an ophthalmologist or the gold standard tool for diagnosis might not be available.
“I loved these projects because of the opportunity for global impact if cheaper, more readily available tools could be validated for diagnosis. With increased access to viable screening tools, eye disease could be detected much sooner which, in theory, could allow for earlier intervention and better visual outcomes,” said Richardson.
“This grant was instrumental in my ability to fund my research year, set up my project, and ultimately, find success in the ophthalmology match cycle,” added Richardson, who is now at the University of Miami’s Bascom Palmer Eye Institute for his residency. “I was honored to be one of the recipients of this award and tried to make the most of the opportunity during my research year.”
The implications of diversity in research are undeniable. Studies have shown that when individuals from diverse backgrounds enter the fields of clinical medicine and medical research, outcomes for patients improve, particularly within underserved communities. This ripple effect extends to the entire scientific community, where diversity fosters innovation and broadens the scope of inquiry.
Jeremy Nortey, another mentee at UCSF, came from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill looking specifically for an opportunity to work in ophthalmology during his gap year. John Gonzales, M.D., associate professor at UCSF, was his mentor in 2022.
“It was Jeremy who chose us! He was very interested in our work in ocular inflammatory and infectious diseases as well as our international projects and we were really impressed with his initiative to read about our work and reach out to us,” Dr. Gonzales recalls.
Together, Jeremy and Dr. Gonzales worked on assessing features of corneal neuropathy using confocal microscopy. Jeremy was able to learn about the morphologic features that can be seen in a small fiber neuropathy and used imaging analysis software. He presented his work at the annual meeting of the Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology (ARVO) through a travel grant, a high honor for early-career scientists.
“The projects that I conducted with my mentor were my first real exposure to the field of ophthalmology. They laid the groundwork for my research career in the field, and grew my interest in uveitis,” said Nortey. He is currently at Northwestern University for his residency in ophthalmology. His work during his research year at UCSF led to publications in the American Journal of Ophthalmology and Ocular Immunology and Inflammation, among others.
“Jeremy put in a lot of hard work on his project. I could not have been prouder of his efforts and growth. I expect him to make significant contributions to our field”, says Dr. Gonzales.
“My career was pushed forward in so many ways due to this grant. My network within the field of ophthalmology greatly increased which allowed me to go abroad to conduct research projects and present my projects at national conferences. Working with my mentor has put a career in research closer on my radar. This was my first experience working with a clinician-scientist. Before, I didn't have a strong desire to conduct research projects in my future career because I was more interested in patient care. Working with Dr. Gonzales showed me how I could combine patient care with research projects, and that combination was something I didn't know I wanted,” said Nortey.
Out of four students supported by NEI’s diversity grants at UCSF recently, three decided to continue their medical residencies in ophthalmology after their gap year work, and another student decided to pursue a doctorate in epidemiology with a focus on ophthalmology.
As the success stories of candidates like Samantha Sechrist, Quintin Richardson and Jeremy Nortey illustrate, programs like the NIH Diversity Supplements pave the way for transformative change. By offering tailored support, mentorship, and growth opportunities, the program supports students in contributing meaningfully to scientific research while bringing their unique backgrounds and perspectives to their chosen area of interest.
“It is important that our health care professionals and researchers are representative of the population we serve in the United States,” said Jimmy T. Le, Sc.D., another program director for Collaborative Clinical Research at NEI DESP. "I hope that the opportunities offered by the diversity supplements program inspire individuals who are underrepresented in the health care field to pursue a path where they become leaders and can influence how we address inequities in health care and research."
For specific types of diversity supplements and requirements, visit: https://grants.nih.gov/grants/guide/pa-files/PA-21-071.html