‘Next Gen’ symposium supports a more equitable professoriate
Kekoa Taparra’s mission is rooted in his ʻohana: his family and community.
As a Native Hawaiian MD-PhD physician-scientist, Taparra seeks to recruit Pacific Islanders and their allies to become health care professionals and researchers, amplify his community’s stories, and pursue health equity for Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders.
In late November, Taparra, who is currently a postdoctoral medical fellow and radiation therapy resident at Stanford Medicine, presented his research on combatting structural racism in health data at the 2023 Stanford.Berkeley.UCSF Next Generation Symposium, sponsored by the three universities and the Chan Zuckerberg Biohub San Francisco. The event showcases early-career scientists in quantitative biological and biomedical sciences with “a track record of research productivity and demonstrated contributions to enhancing diversity, equity, and inclusion in STEM.”
The symposium is more than a single event. From its origin in 2020, it’s been designed to build a long-lasting community among researchers and increase representation among STEM faculty by enriching the pool of applicants to faculty positions.
For Taparra, the symposium brought multifaceted opportunities: to share his work in an often-overlooked area of research, to connect with a mentor, to spark interest in others who might join his research team, and to benefit him on the path to his dream job.
“It’s crucial to create pathways for sustained support, mentorship, and growth for researchers from diverse backgrounds,” he said. “This involves not only providing platforms for visibility but also ensuring that institutions like Stanford actively engage in recruiting, nurturing, and retaining such talent. In the end, it’s more than presenting the Next Generation Faculty, it’s about securing their placement in faculty roles so that they can effect substantive change in research.”
In mid-2020, Polly Fordyce, a Stanford associate professor of bioengineering and of genetics, was talking with Aaron Streets, an assistant professor of bioengineering at the University of California, Berkeley, and a fellow Chan Zuckerberg Biohub Network investigator, about what it means to be a good professor.
“You have to be excellent at research. You also have to be excellent at teaching and mentoring, as well as excellent at communicating your science to the general population so that they have faith and trust in science that we’re working to better the world,” Fordyce said.
She and Streets agreed that traditional faculty searches weren’t helping build a truly exceptional professoriate. Ads may state that “women and minorities are especially encouraged to apply,” but data shows that people from underrepresented groups are less likely to pursue opportunities for which they are qualified, Fordyce said.
“If you want to broaden participation, you need to go out and find people, and you need to convince them to apply,” she said.
Streets and Fordyce partnered with another Biohub investigator, Jason Sello, a professor of pharmaceutical chemistry at the University of California, San Francisco, and began planning the first Next Generation Symposium.
Faculty members from Stanford, Berkeley, and UCSF ranked 270 applicants on their overall excellence – not only in science, but also in teaching, service, and leadership.
The panel selected 12 speakers and paired them with mentors who had related research expertise. In addition to preparing for the symposium, this helped the early-career scientists gain insight into the “hidden curriculum” of searching for a faculty position, Fordyce said.
More than 500 people tuned in for the inaugural symposium.
The scientists featured in the 2020, 2021, and 2023 symposia – along with presenters at the 2022 THIS Generation Faculty Symposium featuring recently hired faculty of color – make it clear that there is no trade-off between hiring for diversity and hiring for excellence, Fordyce said.
Since their Next Generation experience, a majority of past speakers have been recruited to R1 research universities, including several to Stanford.
“One of the most tangible results is just having more representation on the faculty,” Fordyce said. “Diverse faculty members make our departments better equipped to mentor diverse students and pursue a broader range of research that addresses scientific and health concerns that have been unmet or ignored historically.”
Nicole Martinez spoke at the 2020 symposium while she was a postdoc at Yale. She’d been reluctant to go on the job market, but the experience gave her confidence.
“It really propelled my job search in that way, giving me the momentum to just go for it, even though it was a pandemic year and I wasn’t really planning on it,” she said.
Martinez became an assistant professor of chemical and systems biology and developmental biology at Stanford in January 2022. Her lab studies how modifications to mRNA can alter the information encoded in the genome, which affects gene expression.
She said she was drawn to Stanford by the availability of senior and peer mentors, including some who also participated in the symposium.
Kyle Daniels was in the middle of his postdoctoral research at UCSF when he was selected for the 2020 symposium. During the pandemic, he said, the job market seemed dire. However, the symposium paired him with a mentor, Stanford bioengineering Professor Markus Covert, and the event allowed him to share his research on engineering immune cells with people from top-tier universities.
“It was a time of everything being hopeless,” he said. “And here was this opportunity for hope.”
In May 2023, Daniels became an assistant professor of genetics at Stanford Medicine, where he’s working to develop prototype technologies to control immune cells. Along with offering an alternative path to academic networking, he said, the symposium connected him with fellow early-career faculty members.
“To have that support network of other people who are going through, or have just been through, the same things you’re going through is very helpful,” he said.
Along with Taparra, three other Stanford researchers were among the 14 presenters at the 2023 symposium: Shawna Follis, an instructor of medicine at the Stanford Prevention Research Center, who studies structural and social determinants of cardiovascular disease disparities; Lauren Hagler, a postdoc in biochemistry, who studies RNA biology and structure; and Louai Labanieh, a postdoc at the Stanford Cancer Institute, who is working to engineer more effective cell-based immunotherapies.
Every presenter demonstrated the excellent scientists the symposium seeks to support, whether currently at Stanford or someday being recruited to apply.
“The talented candidates are out there, but we have to convince amazing people to apply to our searches in order to get this incredible pool,” Fordyce said. “And it is cool to see this community of scientists supporting each other and being rock stars. That’s maybe the coolest thing.”
Fordyce is also a member of Stanford Bio-X, SPARK at Stanford, and the Wu Tsai Neurosciences Institute, and an institute scholar at Sarafan ChEM-H. Martinez is also an institute scholar at Sarafan ChEM-H. Daniels is also a member of the Stanford Cancer Institute. Labanieh is also a member of the Maternal & Child Health Research Institute (MCHRI).