Diversity fuels STEM research and education at BIO5

The inaugural BIO5 Ignites Science event featured four BIO5 members who exemplify how diversity in backgrounds and thought advances research, innovation and education.
Dr. Brittany Uhlorn, BIO5 Institute

The BIO5 Institute harnesses the powers of diversity and inclusivity to ignite scientific discovery and innovation and prepare students for leading, living, and working in a multifaceted world. 

On November 9, the inaugural BIO5 Ignites Science livestream event celebrated the diverse backgrounds and ways of thinking that spur scientific inquiry, discovery and education at UArizona.   

“At BIO5, we are not bound by any preconceived definition of who someone is or what can be accomplished,” said Lisa Romero, Executive Director of Public Affairs, Communications and Engagement and event moderator. “This event helps to recognize and honor how what makes us different enables us to achieve and empower.”

The evening featured four panelists and BIO5 members: 

- Dr. Michael Johnson, assistant professor of immunobiology and applied biosciences
- Dr. May Khanna, associate professor of pharmacology, assistant professor of neuroscience 
- Dr. Julie Ledford, associate professor of cellular and molecular medicine, immunobiology, medicine, clinical translational sciences, and applied biosciences
- Dr. Benjamin Renquist, associate professor of animal and comparative biomedical sciences, nutritional sciences, and physiological sciences

Diversity drives discovery

The evening kicked off with a discussion about how the diversity of laboratory personnel provides a multitude of perspectives that enhance discovery. 

“Having the diversity of mind in our trainees is so important,” Khanna said. “We [professors] are usually so focused on one train of thought, so the more diversity you have in that population of thought, the more exciting your questions can be, and the more they can change.”

Not only is diversity within a lab important, but forming collaborations between researchers of different areas of expertise also helps to move the needle forward.

Ledford and Johnson, alumni from rival institutions, shared how their daughters and common love for science united them. Johnson’s biochemistry background has complimented Ledford’s expertise in obstructive lung disease biology to result in a successful $2.5 million R01 grant and the publication of their field-shifting findings in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine.

Initially connected by a student at a scientific conference, now two years later, Khanna and Renquist similarly shared how their unlikely meet led them to team up and develop potential therapeutics that might combat obesity and obesity-related diseases.

While diversity of thought and background is said to be valued, the American Association of University Professors found that while women make up nearly half of full-time faculty members, they are underrepresented in tenure-track positions. Further, underrepresented minorities only make up 13% of full-time faculty across the nation. 

And although there are more females enrolled in college than males, they are highly underrepresented in STEM fields, especially engineering and physics. 

One audience member asked, “What’s the biggest challenge to nurturing diversity in academia?”

The current system asks students and young professionals to fit in with everyone already at the table, Johnson responded, but this model excludes people from a myriad of backgrounds because they don’t have necessarily think like or have the same resources and opportunities as the existing group. 

“Instead of asking them to meet us, we need to be meeting students where they are at,” said Johnson. “We need to bring them to the table by the hand as opposed to expecting them to sit down and fit in.”

Johnson has put this idea into action several times throughout his career, with two of the most notable examples being his creation of the BIO5 Postdoctoral Fellowship Program and the National Summer Undergraduate Research Program (NSURP).

The BIO5 Postdoctoral Fellowship is an internal funding mechanism for outstanding UArizona postdoctoral researchers who are engaging in research projects aligned with the mission of the BIO5 Institute. Fellows are awarded valuable financial support and mentorship to help the pursuit of their professional goals.

Dr. Michael DL Johnson
Dr. Michael D. L. Johnson

As a person of color, Johnson also feels a great responsibility to create opportunities that empower underrepresented students. 

Many black, indigenous, people of color (BIPOC) undergraduate students aspired to participate in summer research programs but were unable to do so because of COVID-19. To meet their needs, Johnson co-founded the NSURP “microbial match-making program.” 

“These students literally wanted a seat at the table but couldn’t have one because COVID-19 had a disproportionate effect on underserved populations,” Johnson said, “so they needed a hand to bring them there.”

Johnson also highlighted that representation matters - often students of color don’t know what they can be or achieve until they see someone like them in that position. 

In order to increase the number of underrepresented groups in STEM, Renquist said we need to decrease barriers and provide more opportunities for development, growth and success.

Innovation requires a symphony of disciplines and support

The panelists also discussed how diversity of thought and expertise fuel scientific innovation and idea commercialization. 

Renquist shared how his unique expertise in obesity research and animal agriculture enabled him to launch the startup GenetiRate, a company aimed at selecting fast growing, feed-efficient aquatic organisms to encourage the sustainability and profitability of aquaculture.

He’s now shifting gears in a collaboration with Khanna to develop new drugs for diabetes.

Ledford and Khanna also discussed their experiences with startup companies. 

Ledford collaborated with Dr. Josef Vagner, research associate professor of pharmacology and director of the Ligand Discovery Laboratory, and Dr. Monica Kraft, professor of medicine and deputy director of the UArizona Health Sciences Asthma and Airway Disease Research Center, to develop asthma drugs that mimic proteins already present in our lungs. With their startup, RaeSedo LLC, they hope to use these compounds in inhalers to improve the lives of the 25 million Americans that suffer from asthma. 

Similarly focused on finding therapeutics to support human health, Khanna described her experience with commercializing ideas from the bench, partly through her role as scientific co-founder of Regulonix, an early-stage biotechnology company developing non-opioid therapeutics that relieve chronic pain.

Her ability to formulate an idea for a new therapeutic, develop it in the lab, and work towards commercialization is largely based on collaborations with Tech Launch Arizona, FORGE, The McGuire Center for Entrepreneurship, and The Center for Innovation in Brain Science.

“There’s a beautiful, collaborative ecosystem here at the university that drives innovation,” said Khanna, “and that’s the heart of BIO5.” 

Dr. May Khanna
Dr. May Khanna

In 2020 she also launched a new class, Chemistry to Cure, that allows students to harness the fields of medicinal chemistry, entrepreneurship, pharmacology, and biology to design drugs and ultimately launch a company with their innovations. 

Diversity and fearlessness bring opportunities

The event concluded with advice for budding scientists.

Khanna, originally from Africa, said she was drawn to a career in the United States because of diversity and breadth of opportunity that awaited her. 

Since arriving, she’s taken risks, and the professor touts that opportunities come to those who are fearless and don’t shy away from failure. 

“Something I tell anyone who comes into my lab is that the vast majority of the time, you’re going to fail,” Dr. Khanna said. “The students come in thinking an A is a success story, but when you come into a lab, you have to be ready to get Es and Fs all the time, but that is the way you actually start to succeed.

“Don’t be afraid to fail, because the more you fail, the more successful you will actually be.”

BIO5 Ignites Science logo

BIO5 Ignites Science is an ongoing event series in a moderated, interactive table conversation format about how the value in diversity of thought, ideals, expertise, culture, approach, personal experience, disciplines, and background is embedded in the DNA of BIO5, and how we foster an inclusive, open-minded, and supportive environment. 

The event series is open to the public and university community, including to faculty, staff, students, lab personnel staff, and other campus partners.

For more information, please visit the Discover BIO5 website

About the University of Arizona BIO5 Institute
The BIO5 Institute at the University of Arizona connects and mobilizes top researchers in agriculture, engineering, medicine, pharmacy, data and computational science, and basic science to find creative solutions to humanity’s most pressing health and environmental challenges. Since 2001, this interdisciplinary approach has been an international model of how to conduct collaborative research, and has resulted in disease prevention strategies, innovative diagnostics and devices, promising new therapies, and improved food sustainability. Learn more at BIO5.ORG.