Brad Duerstock is a neuroscientist. He's also a quadriplegic. Last week he received $2 million from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to help others with disabilities who want to follow in his career tracks.
Last week NIH announced six winners  of a competition  to promote a more diverse scientific workforce, a problem it says "has eluded solution for decades." Every project, each worth $2 million over 3 years, aims to tear down barriers to participation, through everything from helping faculty members reexamine gender and racial stereotypes to improved mentoring of students from underrepresented groups. But Duerstock's will literally remove those obstacles, through a new Institute for Accessible Science on the Purdue University campus that will feature a specially designed wet lab and a Web-based hub to promote the use of adaptive-assistive technologies.
Although the words "underrepresented group" are more often applied to African-Americans, Hispanics, and women, the gap is most pronounced among those with disabilities. The proportion of that group who earn undergraduate science and engineering degrees is similar to their 15% share of the overall population, notes Clifton Poodry, head of the Division of Minority Opportunities in Research at the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, which will manage the new program. But, he says, those with disabilities all but disappear from science at the graduate level. And Duerstock, an assistant research professor at the Center for Paralysis Research in the School of Veterinary Medicine, thinks he knows why.
"A student with a disability will tell me about their dream of becoming a physician-scientist, and how they chose psychology instead," he says. "Or they wanted to be an engineer and went into business. They decided that the barriers to working in those fields were just too high."
Duerstock suffered a spinal cord injury in a diving accident during his senior year of high school and is in a wheelchair. Although he had to scrap plans to attend the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, he says he benefited from a "very willing mentor" at Purdue, where he earned both undergraduate and graduate degrees before becoming a faculty member in 1999.
The new institute will sponsor summer training workshops for students and faculty members from around the country. Starting with a half dozen participants in 2012 and doubling in size the next summer, the workshops will teach lab techniques to those with disabilities. "They can take those skills back with them," says Duerstock. "And those facing architectural barriers can do their research here and then analyze the data back home." The second component of the project is a wet-based location that will allow many users to take advantage of the institute's facilities through social networking and simulations. The institute will be housed in a newly opened research center with easily accessible and flexible lab space.
"We know we can do this," says Duerstock, who has received previous funding from the National Science Foundation for a state-of-the-art accessible microscope for high-resolution viewing, fluorescence, and dark-field microscopy. "But the NIH grant gives us an opportunity for a global outreach."
The one-time NIH competition for the Director's Pathfinder Awards, which use money from NIH's $8 billion pot of stimulus funds, attracted 95 proposals. Although Poodry believes every winner was certainly worthy of support, he allows that NIH may have fallen short of its own goal of funding "innovative—and possibly transforming—approaches [with] the potential to produce an unusually high impact in an area of research on workforce diversity. The proposed research must reflect ideas substantially different from those already being pursued."
One obstacle to coming up with such novel and game-changing ideas, he says, was the extremely short lead time for applicants—only 2 months. A potentially more serious limitation may have been the need for substantial institutional buy-in. "Maybe that made it harder for a faculty member with a really radical idea," Poodry muses. At the same time, he adds, "we learned there just aren't a lot of ideas out there that people haven't already thought of." That conclusion, he says, suggests that existing NIH programs, like his, that aim to increase diversity "are not doing too badly."