$15.6 million National Institutes of Health grant to hire nine biomedical faculty, boost inclusive excellence efforts at UNM

By Kate Cunningham / Advance at UNM


A substantial grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) will boost inclusive excellence efforts at UNM and support the hiring of nine diverse faculty in biomedical research in the College of Arts and Sciences.


The $15.6 million, five-year award to the University is part of the NIH Common Fund’s Faculty Institutional Recruitment for Sustainable Transformation (FIRST) program. The award to UNM and four other universities was announced by the NIH today.


“Through the FIRST program, these awardee institutions will build self-reinforcing communities of scientists committed to diversity and inclusive excellence through recruitment of early-career faculty who are competitive for Assistant Professor (or equivalent) positions and have a demonstrated commitment to promoting diversity and inclusive excellence,” according to an announcement from NIH.


“The institutions aim to foster sustainable institutional culture change and positively impact faculty development, retention, progression, and eventual promotion,” the announcement said.


At UNM, an all-female, interdisciplinary team of scientists from a variety of STEM fields will work closely with administrators from the College of Arts and Sciences on the hires and will focus on retaining and supporting current faculty. 


The program, called UNM FIRST, specifically aims to promote sustained inclusive excellence through hiring of a diverse cohort of early-career faculty in the areas of neuroscience and data science.


The project leads are Jane Ellen Smith, a professor of psychology, and Irene Salinas, a professor of biology, who will co-lead the administration of the grant (# U54CA272167). 


Salinas and Barbara Rodriguez, senior vice provost for Academic Affairs, will co-lead the faculty development component.


Katie Witkiewitz, a distinguished professor of psychology and Julia Fulghum, director of Advance at UNM, will co-lead the evaluation arm of the grant.


Others working on the project include Lisa Marchiondo, an associate professor of organizational behavior, Shannon Sanchez-Youngman, an assistant professor of population health and Margo Villarosa-Hurlocker, an assistant professor of psychology. The project also involves an External Advisory Committee made up of six colleagues from across the country who have expertise in neuroscience or data science and who have been successful in obtaining NIH funding and mentoring underrepresented researchers in the biomedical sciences.


UNM Provost James Holloway said the grant will benefit UNM’s research efforts in a variety of ways.


“This support from NIH is a huge plus for New Mexico and UNM,” he said. “A diverse faculty generates more ideas and better ideas, and these ideas translate into the intellectual property that starts companies;  the treatment methods that will address substance use; the tools of analysis that allow us to extract wisdom from data, and the concepts that explain the universe.”


UNM Vice President for Research Ellen Fisher said the project acknowledges the work UNM has done and will continue to do on faculty diversity.


“Strategically hiring within the broad field of biomedical sciences promises to transform the research landscape at UNM through innovative, cross-disciplinary research programs that will enhance our research infrastructure and provide students with hands-on experiences currently unavailable,” she said.  “Perhaps more importantly, the ability to hire multiple faculty members as an interdisciplinary cohort provides a built-in community that will promote and enhance collaboration and peer mentoring for success.” 


The hires will include two faculty members each in the departments of biology, chemistry and psychology and one hire each in the departments of mathematics and statistics, physics and astronomy, and speech and hearing sciences. 

The hires will occur over the next two years with hiring clusters focused on neuroscience and data science.


Arash Mafi, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, said the award will expand opportunities for the university to support diverse faculty.


“This award enables UNM and Arts and Sciences to achieve the critical goal of having a more diverse faculty who can ask broader questions in their scholarship and reach a broader audience in their teaching and community outreach,” he said. “In addition to hiring exciting new colleagues, the professional development plans in this award will bring new opportunities for current and future faculty. We look forward to supporting our new colleagues in developing productive and enjoyable careers at UNM.”  


Smith said she became interested in applying for the grant because the NIH encouraged the use of science-based approaches to recruiting and retaining diverse faculty.


The project also “emphasized the need to incorporate any promising findings into the university’s overall culture so that UNM can sustain such hires in the future,” she said.


“UNM has been committed to diversifying its faculty for some time now, and this grant offers outstanding additional opportunities for successfully doing so: a powerhouse of faculty to lead the effort with me and Dr. Salinas, a novel cluster hire approach to faculty recruitment, incredible financial support for setting up research labs, a series of carefully designed mentoring and training programs for the new hires, an exquisitely crafted evaluation process to determine which aspects of our strategy work, and a devoted group of UNM administrators who are 100% behind the effort.”


Salinas said the combination of advancing neuroscience and data science while implementing institutional change is powerful. 


She’s elated about the project for several reasons, including that the team members are all women.


“The first one is to make sustained institutional changes that make UNM a diverse and welcoming environment for all faculty. I really want this change to permeate at all levels of our institution. We need to understand that academic success and scholarly legitimacy can happen in many shapes and forms. Under this award, we will celebrate exactly that, by recruiting, welcoming and promoting new biomedical faculty of diverse backgrounds,” she said.


“This is a huge accomplishment for UNM, as very few awards were made, and I hope what we achieve is also huge, because it is our duty to serve a very diverse student body and we should represent all backgrounds. It is a statement that everyone belongs to STEM and that success in academia can come from diverse backgrounds. We are very grateful to contribute to the NIH mission of diversifying biomedical research and the NIH workforce.”


This is the second round of awards for the program, which is funded by the NIH Common Fund. Other recipients of the funding include Northwestern University at Chicago; the University of California – San Diego; the University of Maryland – Baltimore and the University of South Carolina at Columbia. Funding for the grants totals more than $75 million over five years. 


Although there is a pressing need to boost diversity at NIH-funded universities, “progress in accomplishing this goal has been seen mostly with trainee populations, leaving biomedical research faculty diversity as an ongoing, recalcitrant challenge,” according to the NIH.