Thirty Years of the SOT Undergraduate Diversity Program

By Claude McGowan posted 02-28-2019 15:07


CDI UDP Anniversary.pngI consider myself fortunate to have been among those SOT professionals involved in the initiation of the program we now celebrate—namely, the Undergraduate Diversity Program (UDP). We celebrate it now not only for its longevity but also for its influence on so many lives and careers. I understand that over the past 30 years, more than 1,000 students have been SOT guests, where they were exposed to all aspects of our discipline and where they interacted with scientists at all levels of training and from all employment sectors. 

2017 Undergraduate Diversity Program.pngThe importance of the UDP to the diversity goals of our Society was confirmed by its commitment to fund the UDP during the years between the program’s initiation in 1989 until the National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant support was awarded in 1991. Of equal importance to the growth and longevity of the UDP is the voluntary stewardship of the NIH grant review and renewal process over the past three decades by Principal Investigators (PI) Drs. Marion Ehrich, Myrtle Davis, and José Manautou.

I commend the leaders of SOT, past and present, for their understanding of, dedication to, and emphasis on the importance of ensuring a diverse participation in the biomedical sciences, in general, and in our discipline in particular. From the Society’s early focus on education and diversity issues with the formation of the ad hoc Tox 90s Committee in 1989, to the work of the Education Committee and its Subcommittee on Minority Initiatives (SCMI), to the now independent Committee on Diversity Initiatives (CDI), the SOT membership has enthusiastically supported the goal of reaching out to underrepresented segments of our population. I, for one, am proud to have had the opportunity to serve on as well as chair both the Education Committee and the SCMI.

McGowan and Gandolfi 1999.pngMentoring, networking, and serving as role models have been core components of the UDP from its inception, and some of the longtime contributors are the embodiment of those key principles that promote the development of successful careers. We will be forever indebted to Drs. Marion Ehrich and Faye Calhoun for their passion, energy, vision, and determination to make the UDP an independently funded program. As the initial PI on the NIH grant, Marion’s leadership and dedication stand as a fantastic example of what goodness of heart and purpose of mind can achieve when combined with a dash of selflessness and a smidge of unbridled concern. I doubt if she has ever said no to anything that SOT has asked of her. I’ve heard her say during our conversations about UDP that I was a good sounding board for her during the grant-writing process. From my perspective, though, she was and continues to be an important personal role model in the way she has always worked tirelessly on behalf of the Society. 

As for Faye, she showed me the importance of finding good mentors and the value of being a good mentor to others. She mentored so many of us back then, among whom were many of the visiting students, graduate students, postdocs, and “newly minted” toxicologists, as well as some of the more established scientists. She took networking to a new level. Once she understood a career-building challenge of a mentee after a short conversation, there would always be someone that she’d suggest we talk to. I know I personally benefited from her guidance, so much so that I never made a major career decision without first consulting both Dr. Faye Calhoun and Dr. Sidney Green.

It has been so encouraging and fulfilling over the life of the UDP for me to see our membership’s willingness to volunteer as mentors and program participants during the students’ visits. Confirmation of the success of the program is evidenced by the many visiting undergraduate students who’ve returned to support the program as graduate students, postdocs, and practicing toxicology professionals.   

On a personal note, I am proud that my niece had the honor of being selected as one of the UDP visiting students in 2007 while a chemistry major in her junior year at Tougaloo College. The positive SOT experience inspired and encouraged her to pursue graduate training. After earning her PhD in chemistry in 2014 at the University of Alabama and receiving postdoctoral training with Dr. L. Karl Olsen at Michigan State University, Dr. Sharifa Love-Rutledge is now an assistant professor at the University of Alabama in Huntsville College of Science.

To the many volunteers who have been and continue to be committed to supporting this program, I share your passion and the relentless fervor with which you insist on participating in the UDP effort. Congratulations to all who have been involved in or supported this program for the past 30 years. This includes our Council members, elected and appointed committee members, mentors, academic program representatives, program speakers, poster presenters, sponsors, and of course the many students who turned a leap of faith into a career experience that they will no doubt remember for a long time.