Intentional about Diversity: Medical researches in Milwaukee strive to build an inclusive environment
Brian Smith, assistant professor of biochemistry, and his wife, research scientist Sarah Wynia-Smith, PhD, are not only at the forefront of epigenetics research in cancer and diabetes but are also committed to building a diverse and inclusive lab team.
Researchers in the Smith Lab within the Department of Biochemistry at the Medical College of Wisconsin (MCW) come from countries across the world, including India, the United Kingdom, Belize, Mexico, Slovakia, Nigeria and Ethiopia.
Over the past four years, the Smith Lab has worked closely with MCW’s Office of Student Inclusion & Diversity to include students from populations traditionally underrepresented in science and medicine.
Dr. Smith said his motivation to build a diverse lab began as a moral conviction over disparities and underrepresentation he observed across the Milwaukee area. He felt an interest in science and research would naturally bring people together from diverse backgrounds and enriches experience for everyone.
“It’s hard to live in the Milwaukee area and not see a diversity and disparity problem,” said Dr. Smith. “Sarah and I saw that and wanted to participate in diversity programs where opportunities arose. At MCW, there are people from many backgrounds who all have a shared interest in science.”
When Dr. Smith learned about MCW’s pipeline programs to address diversity in science, he was impressed by the quality of student participants. He and his wife had a unique opportunity to mentor and train students who were underrepresented in science and medicine. Dr. Smith believed that hiring a diverse team would provide valuable new perspectives, different ways of thinking, and help with changing unconscious biases.
“The best person for the job does not necessarily look like you,” said Dr. Smith. “We have hired people from different walks, and ultimately, we hire the best person for the job. We have hosted high school, undergraduate, and graduate students. We have hired people who are part of the LGBTQ+ community. We have hired people from different socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds. When there’s a diverse team, everyone benefits from different perspectives.”
The Smith Lab first began supporting MCW’s Diversity Summer Health-Related Research Education Program, or DSHREP, with orientation lab session training. This expanded to members of the Smith Lab volunteering to deliver mathematics training sessions, facilitating journal article clubs and hosting pipeline program students in their lab along with several other labs in the department of biochemistry each summer.
“You are only as useful as the trainees in the lab. Science labs are like families because you rely on each other through shared challenges,” said Dr. Wynia-Smith. “People who grow up differently from you can bring different solutions to those challenges.”
Guadalupe Valdivia Esparza, a senior at Marquette University whose family is from Mexico, is one of the students who came to the Smith Lab through DSHREP. Guadalupe has also worked in the Smith Lab through the American Heart Association Summer Undergraduate Research Experiences (SURE) and MCW Program for Undergraduate Research (PURE). She originally began working in the Smith Lab because of her interest in clinical medicine, but her experiences have sparked her interest in basic research as well.
“Dr. Smith’s lab has challenged me and taught me so much about basic science research and mentorship, something that will help me throughout my career,” said Esparza. “I really enjoy the welcoming and collaborative lab culture and environment in the Smith Lab. Whenever I have questions, I feel comfortable asking anyone in the lab because everyone is willing to help. Dr. Smith regularly accepts undergraduate students like me from underrepresented backgrounds through MCW’s research programs.”
Steven Summers, another DSHREP alum and research technologist in the Smith Lab, agreed that the collaborative culture was what drew him to work in the lab in the first place.
“I had not worked in a research lab since I was an undergraduate but heard about Dr. Smith’s lab being open to mentorship and training. I wanted an environment where it was alright to ask questions. That is definitely my experience here,” said Summers. “Dr. Smith and Dr. Wynia-Smith have been extremely supportive of my career goals. I hope to attend medical school, and they connected me with physicians to shadow, in addition to giving me exposure to research in ways I would not have had access to otherwise. I am grateful for their mentorship.”
The Smith Lab has opened new opportunities for many students who have gone on to be accepted to medical school and pursue careers in research. Nnenna Nwaelugo made a direct connection from her experience in the Smith Lab through the Summer Program in Undergraduate Research (SPUR) to her return to MCW to pursue her medical degree.
“My time in the Smith lab was integral to my decision to apply to medical school at MCW, because it was my first exposure to MCW’s commitment to increasing diversity in scientific fields,” said Nwaelugo. “My participation in activities organized by SPUR and DSHREP, in addition to the great mentorship I received in the Smith lab, prepared me to apply for and begin medical school at MCW.”
Dr. Smith continues to believe that mentorship is the key to addressing underrepresentation in the sciences.
“Our success as faculty is predicated on how well the people we mentor ultimately do,” Dr. Smith added. “Many places across the country include increasing diversity as one of their goals, but MCW’s programs are among the most intentional at propelling people forward in their career path.”