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From Stem Cells to STEM Diversity: Immunologist Kenneth Gibbs, Jr. Forges Equity in Science

headshot of Kenneth Gibbs, Jr.
Kenneth Gibbs, Jr. Photo credit: NIH.

Immunologist Kenneth Gibbs, Jr., Ph.D., has the perfect analogy uniting his early career work in signaling biology to his current role shaping the futures of scientists from underrepresented backgrounds.

“In some ways, we’re all like big stem cells walking around,” says Gibbs, a 2021 AAAS Fellow who oversees federal funding programs focused on expanding opportunity and promoting diversity in the biomedical research workforce.

Stem cells decide what to become based on inputs from their environment, including chemicals, hormones and neighboring cells. Like these pluripotent cells, graduate students evaluate many potential pathways, interpreting signals from life experiences, feedback from mentors, and the experiences of peers to select a prospective career.

For underrepresented Ph.D. scientists, the signals often don’t point to faculty positions for a variety of reasons, Gibbs says, citing his recent research. Fewer faculty applicants from these groups prompt less hiring, perpetuating a culture of underrepresentation in academia.

“There’s a pool of really capable and interested people from a large variety of backgrounds that are poised to take positions of leadership and faculty careers,” Gibbs adds. “[But] there are not a lot of mechanisms to identify and support them.”

Gibbs serves as chief of the Undergraduate and Predoctoral Cross-Disciplinary Training Branch at the National Institute of General Medical Sciences. There, he oversees awards to help academic institutions develop diverse pools of undergraduates, post-baccalaureates, and graduate students who will pursue and complete doctoral degrees.

MOSAIC – Maximizing Opportunities for Scientific and Academic Independent Careers – is a newer initiative led by Gibbs that supports the postdoc to faculty transition. As part of the program, scholars from underrepresented groups receive up to five years of mentored career development and research support designed to expand their professional networks.

The so-called “diversity tax” presents another challenge MOSAIC hopes to overcome. Scientists of color are often disproportionately tasked with outreach to enhance diversity and inclusion at their institutions, Gibbs says. This additional workload is often uncompensated and unrecognized in the hiring, promotion and tenure processes.

“You should get credit for the things you’re doing,” Gibbs says. “In MOSAIC, scholars are part of cohorts with peers from similar backgrounds with similar commitments and are provided additional mentoring and an independent award to help them start their own labs.”

Gibbs himself is the product of similar endeavors to open doors for those who would otherwise go without. One such program impacted the trajectory of his life – before he was even born.

Gibbs’ family is primarily descended from Africans who were enslaved in the U.S. and his grandparents grew up in the Jim Crow south. His parents emerged from poverty after becoming the first people in their families to graduate from college through the support of Upward Bound, a federally-funded college preparatory program. Growing up in Durham, N.C., Gibbs understood the importance of an education – and using that tool to benefit others. At first, he dreamed of studying meteorology, admiring Black broadcaster Spencer Christian as he shared the forecast each day on Good Morning America.

“I was curious as a child,” Gibbs notes. “I had a number of Black teachers in Durham public schools who identified an aptitude in science and encouraged me to take various opportunities.”

In high school, Gibbs worked in a physics lab at the University of North Carolina and a chemistry lab at Duke University – the “highest paid gigs I could get as a teenager,” he jokes.

Gibbs then attended the University of Maryland, Baltimore County as a Meyerhoff and Maximizing Access to Research Careers (MARC) scholar studying biochemistry and molecular biology in a diverse, inclusive environment.

He would later go on to complete his Ph.D. at Stanford University’s immunology program. His laboratory research focused on stem cells in the blood and how they communicate with other cells during normal blood development and disease states like leukemia. Gibbs enjoyed the lab, despite a lingering feeling that he didn’t belong. The number of Black presidents of the United States, he says, exceeded the number of Black tenured basic science faculty at his institution.

“Black scientists are like everybody else. You think about where your effort is likely to give the best results, and you put it in those directions,” Gibbs says. “If you don’t see it, you don’t believe it’s something that’s for you.”

The yearning to address the issue of underrepresentation in science – especially in higher education – beckoned as he paused his academic path to tackle the problem. From 2011 to 2013, Gibbs served as a AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow, conducting empirical research on STEM workforce development. The fellowship marked a turning point as he decided to permanently pursue science policy.

In 2018, Gibbs returned to AAAS to deliver a lecture, the "2018 Gilbert Omenn Grand Challenges Address," about the importance of ensuring science is “by all and for all.”

“I have more opportunities than my grandfathers had. That said, there’s still a need for me to have this kind of job to create opportunities for people who would otherwise not have it. Are we want to be? No,” Gibbs says. “Is there real, substantive change from where we were? Yes.”

As we continue to make strides towards true equity in STEM, it is clear AAAS Fellows like Gibbs are unwavering in their dedication to achieving this goal.

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