Epiphani Simmons, PhD, has found her community at Stanford.
A rarity among postdoctoral scholars — she was born into a low-income family, is a first-generation college graduate and is African American — Simmons said her experience at Stanford could have been “quite isolating.”
Instead, she began her neuroscience research at Stanford Medicine as a scholar with the Propel Postdoctoral Scholars Program, which provides $10,000 annually above the base postdoctoral salary, assistance with grant writing, mentoring and other support to help postdocs launch a career in academia. Most of all, it provides a space for networking.
“Stanford is a phenomenal institution with a lot of opportunities, but there aren’t a lot of Black postdocs,” Simmons said. “Propel really helped bridge that gap.”
The Stanford School of Medicine welcomed its first cohort of Propel scholars — 10 postdocs conducting research in bioengineering, population health, pathology and other biomedical sciences — in July 2021; it plans to enroll 10 each year. The scholars apply to Propel after receiving an offer from a faculty mentor at Stanford.
Propel is open to anyone who belongs to a group underrepresented in biomedical academia, including racial and ethnic minorities, gender and sexual minorities, veterans, and people from disadvantaged backgrounds.
A deficiency of diversity
Sheri Krams, PhD, a senior associate dean of graduate education and postdoctoral affairs, said the goal of Propel is to ensure that the percentage of biomedical science faculty at Stanford and other universities more closely reflects the US population.
“We are not a very diverse group,” said Krams, referring to biomedical professors. While undergraduates and graduate students in biomedical sciences have recently become far more representative than past years, that’s not the case with postdoctoral scholars.
“Academia is a long haul, and there are no guarantees,” said Krams, a professor of surgery.
“The goal of Propel is to provide resources and community in support of those postdoctoral fellows who want to be the next generation of professors.”
Tony Ricci, PhD, associate dean of graduate education and postdoctoral affairs and faculty lead for the program, said “Propel is a first step at bridging the gap between postdoctoral scholar and a faculty career.” Probably the most important facet of Propel, he said, is the networking, with faculty and with other students, the program provides.
“We hope to build a community where our scholars can thrive through shared experiences,” said Ricci, a professor of otolaryngology and the Edward C. and Amy H. Sewall Professor II.
Simmons, who is researching methods to cultivate functional blood vessels after stroke, plans to apply for faculty positions at prominent universities.
“If I didn’t have Propel, I don’t know if I would have been as committed to academia,” she said. “It’s provided me with the tools and support I needed to persevere.”