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Young Scientists Hear Inspiring Stories about the Importance of Preparing for Leadership

Yvette Roubideaux decided she wanted to become a physician when she was 16. A member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe in South Dakota, she had seen the delays and staff shortages at health facilities on the reservation as she was growing up. She felt there was a need for more American Indian doctors to help improve the situation.

Yvette Roubideaux

Now, as director of the Indian Health Service—and the first American Indian woman to lead the service—Roubideaux is in a position to make a difference in the lives of nearly 2 million American Indians and Alaskan Natives. She shared some of her experiences at the 2010 Summer Leadership Institute of the Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS), an event co-organized by AAAS and held at the AAAS building 19-23 July.

“You can never really predict where you’ll go in life,” Roubideaux told the 30 participants in the institute, which gives young and mid-career scientists tips and tools for advancing their careers and improving their leadership skills. “You need to be well prepared” for whatever opportunities come your way.

After receiving a medical degree from Harvard and doing her residency at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Roubideaux was soon serving as the clinical director of an Indian Health Service medical facility in Arizona and was on her way to becoming a strong advocate for improved health care for American Indians and Alaska Natives. More recently, she had been an assistant professor of family and community medicine at the University of Arizona, where she conducted extensive research on American Indian health issues, particularly diabetes.

Still, despite her strong credentials, Roubideaux said she was surprised to get a call to join the Obama transition team and then to lead the Indian Health Service. “It’s very different from a research career,” she said, “but it’s an opportunity I just couldn’t turn down.”

SACNAS is a national society supporting minority scientists and science students. Founded 37 years ago, the society is comprised of over 3,000 paid members along with more than 20,000 affiliates and partners from a diversity of disciplines, institutions, ethnic backgrounds. The Summer Leadership Institute is an intensive five-day course featuring small group exercises, keynote speakers, leadership development planning, networking opportunities, and extensive community building among selected participants.

Cora Marrett

Other speakers at the 2010 Institute also stressed the importance of being prepared for opportunities whenever they come along. Cora Marrett, the acting director of the National Science Foundation, grew up in a family of 12. Neither of her parents finished high school. She said there likely were assumptions about “who I am and what I can possibly do.” But she distinguished herself at Virginia Union College, a historically black institution, and went on to earn a doctorate in sociology at the University of Wisconsin.

Marrett, who served as provost of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and senior vice president for academic affairs at the University of Wisconsin system, told the institute attendees that she had ascended to such positions without having served as a dean or department chair. “Preparation is not a function of the positions you’ve held,” she said. Preparation also is a function of experiences that prepare one for leadership, she added, including the skills gained in running a laboratory or a research program.

Marrett came to NSF as assistant director for Education and Human Resources. She was asked to be the acting deputy director of NSF in January 2009—a surprise to her—and when Arden Bement resigned recently as NSF director, Marrett was asked to serve as acting director.

“This isn’t something at all that I sought out or that I campaigned for,” she said. But she was prepared for it.

Shirley Malcom

Shirley Malcom, head of Education and Human Resources at AAAS, also urged the institute participants to recognize that preparation for leadership comes through a range of experiences that go beyond posts held or positions sought.

“We are products of our experiences,” Malcom said. “Don’t run away from them.” In her case, she described the inspiration she drew from her grandmother, who passed a voting literacy test in segregated Alabama and voted for the first time at the age of 70. She then led by example, encouraging other elderly black women to take the test and vote.

Malcom’s aunt, Bessie Estell, was the first African-American woman to serve on the Birmingham City Council, elected at age 75 after a long career as a teacher. “I had great examples of leadership,” Malcom said.

She entered science during the Sputnik era, when there was a national emphasis on the importance of science and engineering. For a girl growing up in the segregated South, the allure of science was undeniable. Malcom did her undergraduate studies at the University of Washington in Seattle—a place where she met a diverse group of students beyond the rigid black-and-white world of her childhood—and received her Ph.D. in ecology at Penn State. She had a tenure-track position at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, but gave it up to come to Washington when she married; her husband was a physicist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.

“I had to reinvent myself,” Malcom said. She started studying rates of minority participation in science, engineering and biomedicine, work that brought her to AAAS and established her as one of the most influential national voices on the topic of diversity in the sciences.

Through it all, Malcom told her audience, she has kept some guidelines in mind that can help members of underrepresented groups prosper. Among them: celebrate and acknowledge those who came before you; rely on colleagues and friends for help, since you cannot do it by yourself; volunteer for assignments and do the best you can or don’t bother; always do your homework and be prepared to contribute; value what you bring to the table and understand that somebody may need what you have to offer.

The week-long SACNAS institute drew favorable comments from participants, who engaged in training to enhance their decision-making, conflict resolution, mentoring, and listening skills in addition to hearing from role models such as Marrett, Roubideaux and Malcom.

“I want to be a leader, I want to mentor others,” said Josephine Rodriguez, 33, an entomologist and postdoctoral research fellow at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis in Santa Barbara, California. “You can have the best intentions and a good heart and you mean well, but I think you need, in addition to the good intentions, some formal training.”

She mentioned an exercise designed to identify a person’s style of conflict resolution. Her style, she found, is categorized as accommodating. “I scored in the 90th percentile in that style,” she said. “Since I know my style, I can adjust that accordingly in dealing with other individuals.”

Damon Jacobs, 44, a cell biologist at the University of Kansas in Lawrence and a member of the Oglala Sioux, said the lessons from the summer institute will be helpful as he pursues his career as both a laboratory scientist and a teacher. He currently holds a post-doctoral position at Kansas but also is gaining teaching experience through a partnership arrangement with Haskell Indian Nations University, also in Lawrence, which serves about 1,000 undergraduates from federally recognized tribes across the nation.

Jacobs said he was excited to hear Roubideaux’s presentation. “I get goose bumps and chills when I think of somebody from back home rising to such aspirations,” Jacobs said. Like Roubideaux, he has a particular interest in diseases that affect Native Americans. He has designed a course at Haskell on the cell biology of diseases prevalent in native populations, including a recently identified genetic disease involving a myosin motor protein in the lining of the gut that affects digestion in certain populations of American Indians.

Joseph Nuñez, 40, an assistant professor of neuroscience at Michigan State University, said he was impressed by the leadership program. “It’s amazing,” he said. “They are quantifying leadership,” offering strategies and methods that go beyond personal assessments of what makes a good leader. “There are people who do research on this,” he said.


Learn more about the Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS).

Learn more about the SACNAS 2010 Summer Leadership Institute.