Tackling Diversity in Science by Diversifying Researchers in the Lab

Esteban Burchard talks in his lab with Marquitta White and Maria Contreras
Esteban G. Burchard (center), MD, MPH, has worked to diversify his lab with researchers like Marquitta White (left), MS, PhD, and Maria Contreras (right). Photo by Noah Berger

The photograph of Martin Luther King Jr. hanging on the wall of the Asthma Collaboratory lab in UC San Francisco’s Rock Hall serves a reminder to all who toil there, purifying DNA samples or analyzing genetic, social or environmental data that their research is also part of a dream of equality and scientific excellence.

The lab’s director, Esteban G. Burchard, MD, MPH, has become a leading national voice for increasing diversity in the biomedical research workforce, which he sees as deeply tied to racial inequalities in health care.

“It’s like when we only studied heart disease in men and tried to generalize all those results to women,” Burchard says. “It was only when more women became part of research that we realized that the biology is actually different and we realized we can’t treat heart disease in women the same way.”

Burchard is tackling the diversity issue at the national level in his appointment to President Barack Obama’s Precision Medicine Initiative panel to ensure that its hugely ambitious work is ethnically diverse.

But in his own lab, he aims to address both the diversity of research and of researchers by recruiting young people of diverse backgrounds to push forward research into the genetic and environmental causes of differences in health between races and ethnicities. “We are building a safe haven for students from all backgrounds to conduct revolutionary research,” he says.

Epitomizing the Approach to Research

The most recent example out of his lab is a new series of papers spearheaded by Marquitta White, MS, PhD, an IRACDA-STRIDE postdoctoral fellow in the Asthma Collaboratory epitomizes this approach to research.

Last year, White took on five young summer research students of diverse backgrounds and has trained them to lead their own research projects delving into the genetics of asthma in African-American children. The students learned to design experiments, analyze genetic data, and present their findings to UCSF colleagues and at scientific conferences.

Marquitta White talks with Maria Contreras and Oona Risse-Adams in Esteban Burchard's lab
Marquitta White (right), MS, PhD, took on five young summer research students of diverse backgrounds, which included Maria Contreras (left) and Oona Risse-Adams (center), a 16-year-old sophomore at Lowell High School in San Francisco. Photo by Noah Berger

“Marquitta is easily one of the best teachers that I have ever had in my lab,” Burchard says. "It was really incredible to watch these young women, several of whom are first-generation college students, learn to incorporate techniques in computer science, statistical genetics and precision medicine."

Oona Risse-Adams, a 16-year-old sophomore at Lowell High School in San Francisco, was first out of the gate with her research project, which she co-authored with White, highlighting novel genetic risk factors for asthma in this population.

“To be honest, the lab wasn’t what I expected,” Risse-Adams said. Instead of finding herself among a bunch of scientists sporting goggles and carrying test tubes, she spent the summer delving into statistics and computer science.

“It was hard to think of all these numbers on a screen as actual people with asthma – it's hard to put the two together,” she said. “But Esteban and Marquitta had us visit the hospital and meet with people from the clinical side of things, and that connected our work with the real people we were trying to help.”

The other summer students – Maria Contreras, a first generation college student at San Francisco State University; Jennifer Adams, a first-generation student at Stanford University; Page Goddard, a student at UCLA; and Joaquin Magana, a student at Occidental college in Los Angeles – are also continuing their work with White to examine how these new risk factors relate to heightened asthma severity and mortality among African-Americans as well as this population’s resistance to common asthma drugs.

'There Aren’t a Lot of People in Science Who Look Like Me'

Maria Contreras talks with Marquitta White and Oona Risse-Adams in Esteban Burchard's lab
Maria Contreras (center) talks about her research work with Marquitta White (left) and Oona Risse-Adams (right). Photo by Noah Berger

Contreras, who goes by the nickname "MC," is currently working on another study exploring interactions between socioeconomic status and genetics impact the severity of asthma in the same population. Contreras became interested in health disparities when she noticed the poor health of urban youth she worked with in a leadership program through SFSU.

“At first I didn’t see myself in science. I mean, there aren’t a lot of people in science who look like me,” Contreras says. “But this lab took a chance on me. I came in knowing nothing and they’ve taught me everything I know.”

She calls the Asthma Collaboratory a “special place” where the emphasis was always on what students could accomplish, no matter what their background.

“I just wish more people had opportunities like this,” she says. “There are a lot of kids that get left behind, even kids who are talented and hungry to succeed, because no one is willing to take a chance on them. I could have been that kid.”

A Teacher and a Mentor

Marquitta White comes from a family of teachers – she is the only one in her immediate family not a teacher by profession – and clearly relishes her role as mentor.

Marquita White talks in Esteban Burchard's lab
Marquitta White says she love teaching small groups and getting them excited about the research and giving them the skills so then can take ownership of their own project. Photo by Noah Berger

“I love teaching small groups – getting them excited about the research and giving them the skills so then can take ownership of their own project,” she said. “It’s not just a lecture where they learn facts. They work through the whole process, from coming up with a question, to handling and analyzing the data, making figures and posters for conferences, and writing up the results. All of that is part of science, and you need someone to support you and show you how to do it.”

“Someone gave me my first chance to work in a lab in college,” said White, who attended Clark Atlanta University in Georgia. “And so I pass that along.”

Burchard too sees himself as just one link in a long chain of mentorship. “When I was 15 I wasn’t smart and confident like Oona,” he says. “In fact, I was getting kicked out of high school. But I’m here because a lot of people believed in me and helped me succeed.”

Burchard Giving Support Like He Received

Burchard was raised by a single-mom in San Francisco’s working class Mission District, which can almost be seen from the window of his office at UCSF’s Mission Bay campus. He always dreamed of working at UCSF, he says, but getting to where he is today took a diverse series of mentors and supporters: a surrogate Chinese family growing up and an African-American Olympic team member and wrestling coach who taught him to compete. Later he lived in a Jewish house where his roommates and eventually mentors helped him on his way. 

My students, trainees and staff are my garden – I water them, give them soil and fertilizer, and let them grow.

Esteban G. Burchard, MD, MPH

Even as an established professor at UCSF, support at the right moment can make all the difference, Burchard says. He recalls when he was first being recruited to UCSF getting a call from philanthropist Herb Sandler, whose Sandler Family Foundation supports many groundbreaking researchers at UCSF. “He said he wanted me to make San Francisco General Hospital my soap box to the world,” Burchard says.

A few years later, when it seemed like the world was against him, unswerving support from the Sandlers and the university kept the lab afloat. “We were zero for 11 attempts at NIH funding,” he recalls. “I was at my wits’ end — I was laying people off. And my mother died the same year. It felt like it was the world against Esteban. But the Sandlers helped put the wind back in my sails.”

Burchard said he works to support others in their career like he received in his.

“I’ve had lots of wonderful mentors and supporters in my career, and that's what I try to facilitate in this group. But as much as I teach and preach to them I equally learn from them,” Burchard says. “My students, trainees and staff are my garden – I water them, give them soil and fertilizer, and let them grow.”